NASA leader tours LASP; talks about commercial space travel

BOULDER – NASA administrator Charles Bolden on Friday said that for the next generation of crewed spacecraft like Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Dream Chaser to succeed commercially the industry needs to come up with more destinations.

Getting astronauts to the International Space Station is great, and NASA needs a vehicle to get them there. But that won’t sustain all of the companies looking to get into space flight. Stations and modules from other countries and commercial ventures will be needed to create a viable market for transport back and forth to low-Earth orbit.

“There have got to be a lot of other companies that are putting things there,” Bolden said. “I believe that there is the opportunity. Industry has to believe that.”

Bolden was speaking to reporters after taking a tour of the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder.

Bolden said the aerospace industry has been able to find a viable market for the transport of commercial cargo like satellites to space. But crew is more difficult given the lack of destinations and the fact that few customers aside from NASA exist.

As part of its Commercial Crew Program, Bolden said NASA is kicking in about 80 percent of the development costs for companies to get to an operational stage with crewed vehicles. Sierra Nevada – which has its Space Systems division based in Louisville – is one of three companies along with Boeing and SpaceX that are competing to send NASA astronauts to space by 2017. NASA is helping fund them all with the idea that multiple safe and affordable systems could be developed.

But Bolden has faced resistance from lawmakers recently over NASA’s request for $858 million in 2015 to sustain the CCP. That money is needed, Bolden said Friday, to keep funding multiple companies and meet the 2017 operationally ready date. The operationally ready date has already been bumped back two years from 2015, he said, because the CCP has been underfunded in the past.

Sierra Nevada in January announced partnerships to work with the European Space Agency and the German Aerospace Center to help with further development of Dream Chaser as the company seeks to define other missions for the spacecraft aside from just transporting crew and cargo for NASA.

Bolden said commercial modules in the future could be placed in space for things like commercial research and development, materials processing or rocket assembly. If someone sends a crew to Mars in the future, for instance, Bolden said it likely won’t be in a vehicle launched from Earth and returning to Earth. It will be in a vehicle launched from low-Earth orbit and returning there. That would create a need for crew to be shuttled back and forth from Earth to the launch pad.

“It remains for industry to demonstrate whether or not they believe that a viable commercial crew industry is there,” Bolden said. “That’s a challenge.”

Other items of note from Bolden’s visit to LASP included:

– Bolden said NASA is still collaborating smoothly with Russia’s space agency despite tensions between the two countries in the wake of Russia’s annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine. NASA currently relies on Russia to transport astronauts to the International Space Station. “We try to stay above the fray,” Bolden said. “We believe that space exploration has to go on while things are going on around here.”

– Bolden said the drive to get back to the moon is an antiquated idea. “The future for humanity is deep space. It’s getting to Mars. It’s trying to find answers to the question of how do we protect this planet against asteroids and other threats. I think if you were to talk to students here and what they want to do, they want to do lunar stuff, but almost everybody eventually wants to get to Mars.”

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