Chris Ferguson represents the dawning era of commercial spaceflight. He was pilot or commander of three Space Shuttle missions, including the program’s final mission. At the time of the forum, he was a Boeing commercial test pilot astronaut scheduled to be on the first flight of the CST-100 Starliner. Commercial companies launching astronauts into space “is what the future of spaceflight holds,” he said.
After the Space Shuttle program ended, NASA let a large contract to return Americans to low Earth orbit aboard commercial spacecraft. Obtaining this service from a commercial company is allowing NASA to focus on exploration missions beyond low Earth orbit while also producing value for US taxpayers, Ferguson said.
The CST-100 Starliner is designed to carry up to five astronauts to the ISS and remain docked to the station as a lifeboat should it be needed. It will launch on an Atlas V rocket, a proven technology that has made about 80 flights since the early 2000s. Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral, which was previously an uncrewed-only facility, has been rebuilt for crewed launches. Flight support will come from a team in Houston composed of many of the mission controllers who serviced the Space Shuttle program. “We are going to leverage a lot of the capability that NASA had as a function of safely operating the Space Shuttle for 30 years,” said Ferguson.
To return astronauts to Earth, the service module will be jettisoned just after the deorbit burn. The crew module will then land at one of five West Coast landing sites: two at the White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico and one each near Wilcox, Arizona, at the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, and at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
Other companies are also developing commercial spacecraft. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo has taken nonastronauts to space and back, and NASA is using the spacecraft to do suborbital experimentation. The automated Cygnus spacecraft, which is now built and launched by Northrop Grumman, has transported supplies to the ISS and is “one of our tried and true deliverers of cargo to the station today,” Bolden said.
In 2012 the Dragon spacecraft, developed by SpaceX, became the first commercial vehicle to dock with the ISS. The Dragon, which can be either crewed or autonomous, is sent into orbit atop SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, with mission control both in Hawthorne, California, and at Cape Canaveral. At the time of the forum, SpaceX had made 76 launches of its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. “It is amazing how fast we ramped
up and how many launches we do currently,” said Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of the Build and Flight Reliability Team at SpaceX.
The Crew Dragon vehicle is very automated, like the inside of a Tesla, whereas the CST-100 looks more like a classic spacecraft or the cockpit of a Boeing 787. The Dream Chaser Cargo System being developed by the Sierra Nevada Corporation launches vertically on a rocket but lands horizontally like the Shuttle. “Tom and I, we’d love to fly this,” said Bolden.
In terms of international involvement, the H-II Transfer Vehicle designed by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency has transported materials to the ISS. NASA still works with Russia to get crews back and forth, but Congress has mandated that the agency not use Chinese spacecraft to reach the station, although the Chinese have flown astronauts into space and are partnering with other nations. The Chinese have built docking mechanisms that Bolden hopes comply with international standards, because then their vehicles could dock with the ISS and with other vehicles. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed that that’s what’s happened,” he said, because “one of these days we’ll fly with them.”
All these efforts “are paving the way for us to get back to the Moon and then on to Mars,” said Bolden.
SpaceX is reducing the cost of spaceflight by emphasizing reusability, Koenigsmann explained. The first stage of its boosters returns to Earth and lands softly on the ground. “Landing the boosters and reusing them is an incredible advantage if you want to fly over and over again and if you want to do this quickly,” he said. “It allows you to gain experience in a much shorter time and to start iteratively improving your spacecraft based on what you get back and what you see.”
The boosters are currently designed to be used ten times, and the Crew Dragon will be used up to five times. “You don’t have to build something again. You have to inspect it and refurbish it.”
The idea is to treat a spacecraft more like an aircraft, so that the cost of getting into space “becomes the cost of fuel, maintenance, and operations, basically. That is where we need to go.” Reusing hardware also improves safety, because use provides information and reveals problems, Koenigsmann said. “You see possible leaks. You get more data.”
Although current missions remain focused on low Earth orbit, the ultimate goal is to return to the Moon and travel on to Mars, said Bolden. From Earth, astronauts could travel to a space station in orbit around the Moon, which could serve as a platform for both experimentation and construction. From this Lunar Orbit Gateway, they could board either a lunar lander to go to the surface of the Moon or a transfer vehicle to go to Mars. A lunar lander could be “built by Blue Origin,” Bolden said, “or it may be a NASA-contracted government vehicle, or it may be something that the Europeans or the Japanese or the Israelis or somebody else did. But it’s going to be an international collaboration that’s going to help us.”
Bolden said that a destination date for Mars could be in the 2030s. “I’m one who happens to believe firmly that, if we stay focused, we’re okay.” Such a mission will be expensive, as was the Apollo program, but “we’ll get there.”
Koenigsmann described SpaceX as a company based on the idea of making the human species multiplanetary, which means eventually going from the Earth to Mars. Like Bolden, he noted that the biggest problem is money: “Spaceflight is super expensive.” Magnus, too, noted that the largest current barrier to extending the human presence beyond low Earth orbit is the cost. Reusability is the key, she said, both to reduce costs and to increase the frequency of launches, and industry partners are working with NASA on the issue.
Ferguson pointed out that one of the greatest assets in getting to Mars has been the ISS, where people have been learning to live and work for long durations. The station has shown that it is possible to recycle 95 to 98 percent of the water on board, and is providing information on how to remove carbon dioxide from the air and add oxygen. It is revealing what will be needed to create a system that must function for the duration of time that it takes people to get to Mars and back. “We are perfecting those systems on the International Space Station today.”
Recycling is important, Magnus agreed, but the problem extends beyond creating a 100 percent closed life support system. The logistics to support people on Mars are a massive undertaking. “We have to figure out how to recycle everything that we take into space, and how we can use the materials on the planetary bodies where we place humans.” Ultimately, this work will benefit people on Earth, she observed, because the Earth has finite resources, too.
Crippen said that he firmly believes humans will visit Mars someday, but doing so will require living not just on the ISS but on another planetary body. “We are lucky enough to have the Moon, which is just a few days away as opposed to months going to Mars. It is a great test ground for learning how to live off of this Earth.” Many questions will need to be answered, and living on the Moon can help answer them. “The trips that we did make to the Moon were all little camping trips,” he said. “To live there is a totally different problem. We need to solve that.”
Stafford mentioned the need for research and development on propulsion systems. Going to the Moon and on to Mars will require a big booster, not just combinations of small boosters, he said. And getting to Mars will require new technologies such as a nuclear thermal rocket. “There is a lot to be done.”
The six forum speakers discussed what moderator Deanne Bell described as the “delicate balance” between collaboration and competition in the space industry, “and why we need both.”
Magnus observed that simultaneous collaboration and competition create a productive dynamic because of the push and pull among different entities. “Competition is good because it makes everybody keep innovating. Collaboration is good because we learn from each other.” Space remains a harsh and risky environment. Collaboration enables learning across the community, while competition spurs people and organizations to do better.
The combination of collaboration and competition “works at the end of the day,” said Magnus, because everyone in the space program “is really passionate about the mission of flying in space, whether that is machines or people or both…. We can conquer all kinds of issues that might otherwise create fractionization and dysfunctionality. We still have some, but in general the whole community pulls together.”
The ISS is one of the most complex and highly technological programs ever conceived, involving different countries with different agendas, different languages, and different political situations. But it was achieved because everyone involved in it believed in it. “There is no reason why we can’t solve any problem that is facing us as a global population if we take the same attitude,” said Magnus.
Koenigsmann, too, pointed out that, on the launch pad, “everybody works for the mission.” The same applies when something goes wrong. People want their companies to succeed, “but there is an overarching level where people want things to go well and to be safe and reliable,” he said. “I find that refreshing.”
Ferguson cited the economic benefits of combining collaboration and competition. Developing the Space Shuttle took between $30 billion and $40 billion in 2010 dollars, and the shuttle program cost about $3 billion per year for four or five flights annually. For the cost of operating the Space Shuttle program for two years, two commercial providers have been doing development of spacecraft, two test flights, and six service flights back and forth to the ISS. “Just looking at the dollar value, it will turn out to be a very good value for the American taxpayer,” he said. In turn, the savings can be reinvested to get back to the Moon and to Mars.
Bolden elaborated on the benefits of the current partnership between the government and the private sector. NASA has never had its own facilities to build big rockets (a point also made by Stafford). Rather, it has contracted with private companies to do that job. However, in the past, NASA exercised oversight the way the Department of Defense does. “We hovered over the contractor and dictated everything that goes on.” Now NASA is working much more collaboratively. Using a management process called Insight, it has provided general guidance for contracts and then worked with companies to realize that guidance. “We’re going to have people in the plant. You can ask if you have questions. But we’re not going to tell you how to do it.” The process has worked extremely well, Bolden said, although the development process has taken more time than expected.
The forum panelists addressed a question from an audience member about potential trade-offs between speed and safety. Bolden started with the basic point that “you need to have both. Speed does not mean you don’t operate safely.” Safety is a mindset, he said. The people involved in a project need to have the proper background, ethical grounding, and confidence to stop a launch when something does not feel right. Then “you go back and look at the program that you have in place and adjust it as necessary.”
But, he acknowledged, taking longer does not guarantee safety. “It gives you more time to do stupid stuff.”
Engineers need ethics training during their education to help instill the proper mindset, he said. Engineers have to make life-and-death decisions, “so there are a lot of things that don’t have anything to do with math and science and engineering that we have to make sure the young people of today understand.” Similarly, when young engineers see older engineers allow things to happen that are not right, they can absorb the wrong message. “We, as engineers and scientists, have to teach them how to think ethically and how to make the right decision, even if it means the program is slowed for a while. Nothing will end a program like rushing to the end and having it blow up on you…. People get over being years late and dollars over [budget]. People don’t get over—we have never recovered from losing two shuttles. All of us who have been on spacecraft will say that. You don’t recover from that. It’s always a scar that you carry with you. So get it right.”
Complacency is another fault that needs to be avoided, said Magnus. When cutting corners becomes normal operations, “you forget to question things.” Everyone working on a program needs to remain alert, to think about what they are doing, to question, to listen to the system, to make sure they have an environment where people can bring up questions, she said. That is the way “to create the right safety environment, whether you are moving fast or you are moving slow.”
Stafford put the necessary balance succinctly: “The worst thing you can have is an on-time failure.”
The safety mindset at NASA has carried over into the space industry, said Ferguson. The requirements that companies receive from NASA are
informed by “the experiences and the mistakes that NASA has made in the way it has run spaceflight operations in the past.” This has created an “appropriate transition” between a government-run and -managed program and a commercially run and managed program.
Koenigsmann concisely conveyed this mindset: “Only the paranoid survive,” he said. “If that means stopping the launch and explaining to your customer why you stopped for three days, so be it. It is more important to get things right than to get them done on time.”
A final question from the audience involved the balance between sending humans and sending robots back to the Moon and on to Mars. Bolden noted that NASA has been pursuing both. For example, the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE, has been designed to demonstrate how future explorers to Mars might produce oxygen from the Martian atmosphere for propellant and for breathing. And robotic missions could burrow into the surface of Mars and build out an infrastructure for future human occupants.
He also shared a comment he has gotten from friends: that a single geologist on the surface of Mars could explore the whole planet in the time the Curiosity rover has been there. “There is an innate curiosity that humans have that we are not able yet to teach a robot,” he said.
Humans also can do things in space that robots cannot, he continued. When the lens of the Hubble Space Telescope was found to have a spherical aberration, robots would not have been able to fix it—“the technology wasn’t there at the time.” Robots are needed to perform the mundane tasks of spaceflight, he said, but only humans can do many things in space.
Magnus compared human and robotic capabilities to a toolbox. Humans have certain skills, machines have certain skills. “Just like the toolbox in your garage, you can’t do anything with all screwdrivers or all hammers. You need a mix.” The proper mix will depend on the mission, but both require an expensive infrastructure and both have their own fragility and limitations. “It is never going to be an ‘either-or.’ It is always going to be an ‘and.’”
Stafford sealed the argument by pointing out that the Curiosity rover covered the same distance on Mars in three and a half years that astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt did on Apollo 17 in three days. “Again, you need both,” he said.