The next step in the final frontier
Government space agencies partner with private companies to cut costs—and still push the boundaries of exploration.
BY SARAH FISTER GALE ILUSTRATI ON BY ANDY
A Falcon 9 rocket, launches from Cape Canaveral in Brevard County, Florida, USA, carrying a Dragon spacecraft to orbit.
PHOTO BY CHRIS THOMPSON, COURTESY OF SPACEX
another landmark in the short but eventful history of space exploration was reached when the unmanned spacecraft Dragon carried commercial cargo to the International Space Station (ISS).
The mission marked the first time a private spacecraft docked with the ISS, a joint venture between several national space agencies. The spacecraft, launched by Hawthorne, California, USA-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), took flight only six years after the company submitted its first project proposal to NASA (U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration).
The Dragon project is just one example of how the space industry—long the domain of national government agencies—is streamlining its project costs, schedules and management processes by partnering with private organizations to build the next generation of spacecraft technology.
The Falcon 9 rocket, built by SpaceX to launch the Dragon, cost less than half what it would have if developed by NASA, according to the agency's own research. Much of the savings comes from the use of off-the-shelf or previously developed technology.
Partnering with the private sector is a natural step for the space industry, says Heather Rarick, mission operations directorate manager for the commercial crew program at NASA, Houston, Texas, USA. “Most of the technology these private companies are using is in the public domain,” she says.
However, these projects require dramatically different ways of managing milestones, stakeholders and intellectual property.
When managed effectively, commercial partnerships enable federal agencies to pursue their scientific mandates in the face of fluctuating budgets and uncertain priorities. That's increasingly important as national governments scramble to find funding for space exploration and innovation.
Following a series of big-budget failures, Russia recently increased its space spending, part of an ambitious plan to increase its presence in space and land a person on the moon.
China's government recently unveiled an ambitious plan to boost its space program and build a space station by 2020. In 2012, the program met a few key milestones, including the successful launching of its first manned docking mission.
India, too, has an aggressive space program. With a US$1.3 billion budget, the Indian Space Research Organisation has 10 space missions scheduled through November and expects to launch its first manned mission to space in 2016.
For those countries with more established space programs, there's a new mission to find more funds with public-private partnerships. NASA‘s share of government spending has declined each year since 2008, and fiscal tussles in Congress mean that trend is likely to continue.
To do more with less, NASA has gone back to its foundations. Part of the agency's mission is to focus on research and development; once solutions are well-defined, it's beneficial to transfer the technology out to the private sector, says Holly Ridings, lead flight director at NASA. “We transfer these technologies over to the commercial sector, allowing commercialization and the associated cost containment, which result in a product that is more cost-effective,” she says.
Petronio Noronha de Souza, Brazilian Space Agency, Brasilia, Brazil
PHOTO BY JUNIOR TAKAMOTO
Such collaboration is a good thing for both NASA and the private space industry, says Wayne Hale, who worked at NASA for more than 30 years and is now director of human space flight at Special Aerospace Services, an industry consulting firm in Denver, Colorado, USA. “With government-funded projects, if there were changes to the specifications, it was no problem,” he says. “The government was willing to pay for it.”
By involving commercial companies, government agencies are able to tap into the more efficiency-driven project management methods used by for-profit organizations. “That has resulted in lower costs for government administrations and success stories for private industry,” Mr. Hale says.
Not surprisingly, projects involving both public and private organizations require significant stakeholder oversight to avoid potential pitfalls, says Petronio Noronha de Souza, director of space policy and strategic investments at the Brazilian Space Agency (AEB) in Brasilia, Brazil.
One of AEB's main challenges is project governance. The agency is responsible for the overall coordination of space activities in Brazil, but those activities are carried out by several different organizations. That means the agency relies on project leaders to report about milestone reviews, deliver updates and regularly communicate with AEB stakeholders to ensure no projects go off track.
PHOTO BY JUNIOR TAKAMOTO
INTERNATIONAL PARTNERSHIPS: A DELICATE SPACEWALK
Five decades ago, the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a space race, fueled by Cold War tensions, with the moon as the ultimate prize. Now the former rivals are working together, along with several other nations, to make space accessible to all.
The International Space Station (ISS) is, as its name implies, a joint effort between many countries. Government space agencies from the United States, Japan, Russia, Canada and a coalition of European nations created the research facility, which launched in 2000 and continues to host researchers from around the world.
It's a shining example of the benefits of partnering across global borders to achieve common goals in a place where those boundaries disappear.
“The space station is a path to sharing costs while bringing together key elements from other countries that want to gain the scientific opportunity,” says Heather Rarick, NASA (U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration), Houston, Texas, USA.
In an increasingly globalized world, such cooperation on space-industry goals can have a huge payoff, adds Petronio Noronha de Souza, Brazilian Space Agency (AEB), Brasilia, Brazil. “It helps not only to divide costs and reduce risks, but also to promote the advancements and mastery of new technologies in a shorter period of time,” he says.
The AEB and the National Institute for Space Research are currently working with government agencies in China on the China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite (CBERS) program to develop observation satellites. Three such satellites have been launched, with the countries sharing the cost of the satellites, the launches and the ground system.
Brazil and Ukraine also created a joint venture, called Alcantara Cyclone Space (ACS), which will set up a new launch center on Brazil's northern coast. From that center, ACS will offer commercial services for satellite launching worldwide. “We have no doubt that a fundamental characteristic of the Brazilian Space Program in the future will be strong international partnerships,” Mr. de Souza says.
To increase the chances of success on international projects, teams must invest significant time and effort in communication, says Ms. Rarick. “We spend a lot of time building these relationships and gaining each other's trust.” NASA interfaces daily on active projects with its international partners, including ISS associates. This frequent communication about priorities, goals and challenges reduces risks and fosters greater innovation, she says.
Still, even countries that trust each other are limited by the scope and detail of what they can share. These restrictions add further challenges to the project management process, says Paul Streit, PMP, vice president of programs for Sierra Nevada Corporation's (SNC) Space Systems, a commercial aerospace technology company headquartered in Louisville, Colorado, USA. SNC has partnered with non-U.S. space agencies over the years, but Mr. Streit notes that it's difficult to manage the contracts because of the U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), which controls the export and import of defense-related information.
International Space Station
ITAR‘s goal is to safeguard U.S. national security while furthering foreign policy objectives, but it makes it very difficult for international organizations to share ideas and collaborate.
Mr. Streit says that it is common to develop technology for a partner, then be unable to disclose the product due to ITAR constraints. For example, sharing any information that includes technical specifications, processes or data may require special approval. “ITAR makes it much more difficult to work with international customers,” he says. “It induces them to take their projects elsewhere.”
Political issues are another potentially prickly factor, notes Wayne Hale, Special Aerospace Services, Denver, Colorado, USA. Iran, for example, may be making great strides in satellite launch technology, but the tensions between that country and the United States make joint projects unlikely. “You need to trust each other to be partners,” Mr. Hale says, “and given the state of affairs between the United States and Iran, the chances of such a partnership are less than zero.”
When NASA works with private firms such as SpaceX, communication and information sharing is frequent, says Ed Hoffman, PhD, chief knowledge officer and director of the NASA Academy of Program, Project and Engineering Leadership, Washington, D.C., USA. “Any time you have a contract with NASA, you have to share how you do things,” he says. “Transparency drives a higher level of excellence.”
In such partnerships, the NASA team creates very specific documentation about who will build what and the requirements each group must meet. Then, as the project progresses, NASA stakeholders perform regular milestone reviews to certify progress against those goals, with further funding stipulations based on passing those certifications.
This includes explaining in detail how the space vehicle works and demonstrating that it includes all of the necessary engineering, communication, hydraulic and environmental systems, as detailed in the project documents.
The combination of rigorous communication and standardized project management practices helps keep projects aligned with their original business and strategic goals, says Joss Bland-Hawthorn, PhD, federation fellow professor of astrophysics at the University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia. “I could not even collaborate with the big observatories unless a project management plan was in place.”
Dr. Bland-Hawthorn recently worked with a team of students on an early-phase project to launch a spectrograph, imaging and radio explorer—dubbed i-INSPIRE—into space. “We met our early test goals in the sense that we were able to communicate upwards, collect data and get reasonable data,” he says. The explorer successfully launched last November, though downlink tests back to Earth had issues.
Dr. Bland-Hawthorn notes that even small space-industry projects such as i-INSPIRE support the overarching goals that space agencies want to achieve using public-private collaborations. “The idea is to do things faster, better and cheaper,” he says. “In an academic environment, you can turn around real experiments in a year, develop them further and then start again. And it's a wonderful education tool for would-be engineers and instrument builders.”
SpaceX is developing engines to help the Dragon spacecraft perform propulsive landings anywhere in the solar system.
PHOTO COURTESY OF SPACEX
CASE STUDY DOWN TO EARTH
While many commercial companies are eager to partner with government agencies to build the next great spacecraft, Umbilical Design in Stockholm, Sweden is taking the opposite tack.
The industrial design company has spent many years working with NASA (the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and the European Space Agency (ESA) on designs for space travel. Today, however, the company's focus is applying those designs to the Swedish enterprise and society.
“We aren't just focusing on the material and technology side,” says Cecilia Hertz, an industrial engineer and the company's founder and managing director. “It's about finding parallels between the space sector and the private sector so we can transfer these innovations back to earth.”
In December 2012, Umbilical was appointed to the Swedish node of the ESA Technology Transfer Network. The network includes 12 initiatives across Europe, all working with private sector companies to identify and transfer space technology to the commercial industry sector, Ms. Hertz explains.
She and her team members use an innovation process called “Down to Earth” for these projects. They bring together experts from the space industry and other sectors, university students, and stakeholders from leading companies to brainstorm and develop sustainability-focused solutions.
The process begins with workshops to generate project ideas, which helps Umbilical identify those that have the most promise for further development.
“When you are trying to solve complex problems, you have to have an interdisciplinary team,” Ms. Hertz says, noting that the combination of perspectives, expertise and experience drives teams to think in new ways about old problems by using space as a catalyst.
The biggest challenge, she says, is not in creating a new technology or material; the hard part is finding new ways to use existing resources. “It's all about mindset,” she says. “We have all the technology we could possibly want. It's a matter of figuring out how to apply it.”
Umbilical is currently working with automaker Volvo to identify ways to integrate materials originally intended for spacecraft into automobile designs. The project has been underway for two years, and the next step for the Volvo development team would be to move into the prototype phase to test whether the materials can be used to build lighter, more durable cars.
The team is also exploring ways to make better interior surfaces, such as the ceilings and floors of vehicle cabins, by studying how astronauts live. “In a weightless environment, every surface is equally important,” she says. “By looking at automobile cabins from that perspective, you can come up with great innovations.”
Ms. Hertz hopes these technology initiatives will drive value to the European commercial sector, as well as promote the region's ongoing investment in space travel.
“These knowledge-transfer projects are a win-win for everyone,” she says. “They prove that space research can create value on Earth, and that in turn drives more money and support back to the space sector. So the exploration of space can continue and be a driver of innovation, curiosity and inspiration.”
PHOTO COURTESY OF NASA/RANDY BEAUDOIN, VAFB
“We aren't just focusing on the material and technology side. It's about finding parallels between the space sector and the private sector so we can transfer these innovations back to earth.”
—Cecilia Hertz, Umbilical Design, Stockholm, Sweden
“[International competition] helps not only to divide costs and reduce risks, but also to promote the advancements and mastery of new technologies in a shorter period of time.”
—Petronio Noronha de Souza
THREE HEADS ARE BETTER THAN ONE
Government agencies are further minimizing the project risks that come with involving the private sector by investing in multiple research and development initiatives that simultaneously strive to solve key space travel challenges. Aerospace firms Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada are all working simultaneously on human space-flight projects through contracts with NASA. “We don't want to put all of our eggs in one basket,” Ms. Rarick says.
By investing in multiple project paths, agencies create valuable competition between private partners while increasing the chance that one of these leading-edge solutions will be successful, she says. The competition also incentivizes private firms to make business-savvy decisions that ultimately benefit both the firm and the government partner.
“We have moved to a world where things are more open and visual, and traditional models of project management need to be more agile.”
—Ed Hoffman, PhD, NASA Academy of Program, Project and Engineering Leadership, Washington, D.C., USA
“It allows for the possibility of a cheaper product because of the competition,” Ms. Rarick says. “They are all doing their best to optimize efficiencies and manage their costs.”
The increasing ease with which multiple teams across the globe can collaborate on the same project makes these partnerships more attractive than ever before. “There are more ways to get things done today,” says Dr. Hoffman.
That is, if project professionals raised in the insular government-agency mentality open their minds to new partners and processes.
“Project managers in this space are used to approaching things in a linear fashion,” he says. “But we have moved to a world where things are more open and visual, and traditional models of project management need to be more agile.”
CASE STUDY A TRUE SPACE SHUTTLE
The sci-fi fantasy of small spacecraft zipping back and forth between Earth and the cosmos may still be a dream of the future, but getting humans into—and back from—space is growing ever easier.
The Dream Chaser
IMAGE COURTESY OF SNC
Last December, Sparks, Nevada, USA-based Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) received a US$10 million certification product contract from NASA (U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration) as part of its initiative to certify the Dream Chaser for human transportation. The contract is the first step toward the Dream Chaser sending a human crew to the International Space Station.
This deal brings NASA's total investment in SNC to US$350 million. Along with Boeing and SpaceX, SNC is one of three commercial companies working on spacecraft using NASA seed money.
The funding has come piecemeal over the years as NASA supported individual phases of the Dream Chaser project, says Paul Streit, vice president of programs for SNC.
“Each phase has milestones with defined entry and exit criteria,” he says. “NASA reviews those milestones on scheduled dates. If we achieve the exit criteria, we get paid; if we don't meet the criteria, we don't get paid.”
Along with milestone reviews, the SNC team talks to or meets with NASA stakeholders on a weekly basis to update status, brainstorm problems and track progress against schedule and cost.
So far, the Dream Chaser project has been on time and on budget as it's achieved all of its targeted milestones, including test runs of the landing gear and other major system design work. The team measured the aerodynamic design with a full-scale flight test in which a helicopter lifted the Dream Chaser into the air via cables and took it through a series of banks.
Mr. Streit attributes the program's ongoing success to his team's rigorous adherence to project management processes and measures. “It's not just about checking things off a list,” he says. “We have a baseline plan, and if something is important to the plan, we track those results.”
SNC has also taken a design approach that addresses the biggest risks up front. For example, in spacecraft construction, the propulsion design is among the biggest challenges, so that part of the design was tackled early in the project.
“As we moved forward successfully with each phase, we reduced our risks through the system design,” Mr. Streit says.
NASA‘s demand for detail has also helped mitigate risks, he adds. His project team was required to lay out the entire Dream Chaser design and execution plan in detail during the bid and proposal process to accurately predict time and costs.
“It's not just about checking things off a list. We have a baseline plan, and if something is important to the plan, we track those results.”
—Paul Streit, Sierra Nevada Corporation, Sparks, Nevada, USA
Instead of relying on assumptions based on previous projects, the team took a bottom-up approach to defining design steps and estimating time and cost. For each step, team members interviewed experts, reviewed data, and discussed their expectations with engineers and suppliers to be sure they were as close to accurate as possible. Then they built in contingencies to cover unknown risks.
“When you take a bottom-up approach, it forces you to look at a lot more details, which takes a lot of uncertainty out of the process,” Mr. Streit says. “It takes more time, but every hour you spend up front can save hundreds of hours down the road fixing problems you missed during planning.”
The Dream Chaser is on schedule to complete its first free-flight test with NASA‘s Dryden Flight Research Center in early 2013, and if all goes well, the spacecraft will be ready for commercial human-flight capability as early as 2016.
“With the continued effective project management SNC currently practices,” Mr. Streit says, “we will continue to achieve our program milestones on time and within budget, and ensure the Dream Chaser Space System is ready for commercial operation as committed to NASA.”
Processes, stakeholders and funding sources may be changing, but there's one constant across space projects both public and private: safety.
Safety of the vehicle, the space station and the crew are always top of mind for space agency stakeholders. Commercial companies must be able to demonstrate that the craft meets safety criteria through simulations, design documents and multiple physical tests.
“You have no idea how much effort we put into safety,” Ms. Rarick says.
The consequences of a failure can be immeasurable. When NASA's space shuttle Columbia broke up on re-entry in 2003, all seven astronauts aboard were killed. The shuttle program was put on hold for two years, and NASA's work on the ISS was delayed.
During milestone reviews, NASA partners must detail all of their safety components—including any intellectual property—and walk stakeholders through how craft operators will respond to potential crises, such as the craft colliding with the ISS during docking. These reviews are conducted by a team of engineers responsible for specific systems who can assess individual components of the craft; another review team ultimately approves the overall viability of the project.
NASA technicians at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, USA
“We use simulations to ensure that the teams and procedures are providing safe results,” Ms. Rarick says. “The simulations aren't always satisfactory, but that's why we do them—to improve.”
To further ensure that safety is paramount once a commercial spacecraft is operational, the requirement documents stipulate that NASA has authority over the craft once it nears the space station.
“When a craft is docking with the space station, the last thing we want to be worrying about is money,” Ms. Riding says. If a problem occurs during this critical step, NASA needs to be certain that safety is the only priority. “The operations team has no involvement in money, so it won't cloud our judgment.”
These ultimate controls give government space agencies the confidence to work with private-sector partners on large, complex and potentially dangerous projects.
“It's a paradigm shift for the space industry,” says Mr. Hale. “You need to move beyond your own small group. There is a whole different project mindset outside of government, and it's helping drive innovative solutions.” PM
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