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NASA Buying Private Companies' Suborbital Rocket Flights 60

FleaPlus writes "NASA is spending a total of $475,000, split between Masten Space Systems and John Carmack's Armadillo Aerospace, for a series of seven test flights of the companies' reusable suborbital rockets over the next several months, going to altitudes as high as 25 miles. NASA's goal is to foster a more cost-effective and flexible way to conduct microgravity and upper-atmosphere research. Jeff Bezos's suborbital spaceflight company Blue Origin has also been making steady progress this year on their $3.7M contract to test pusher-escape system and composite pressure vessel technologies, which NASA is interested in for orbital spaceflight."
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NASA Buying Private Companies' Suborbital Rocket Flights

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  • Pay per flight (Score:4, Insightful)

    by QuantumG ( 50515 ) * <> on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @07:42PM (#33431282) Homepage Journal

    What makes this more interesting is that NASA won't actually be paying for the flights until they have flown successfully, and although Armadillo and Masten have been working towards the kind of capability NASA wants, they've mostly been plotting their own course, which means NASA has actually bought something here without specifying the requirements in infinite detail - like they usually do.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by GlassHeart ( 579618 )
      The other thing that is interesting is the "a total of $475,000." When was the last time NASA dealt in dollar amounts under a million?
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by QuantumG ( 50515 ) *

        All the time. The problem is that normally no-one cares because the press is focused on the pork. This is one of the many initiatives that NASA does with "scraps".

        • Re:Pay per flight (Score:4, Interesting)

          by lgw ( 121541 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @10:09PM (#33431992) Journal

          The truely screwed up thing is: NASA only has the freedom to do this sort of thing with "scraps" - all the "real money" is earmarked, with congress saying "build this project using these contractors". NASA has become a project management/procurement organization, which is sad in its own right, but they're not even allowed to do that correctly.

          • by stiggle ( 649614 )

            NASA has a separate budget for promoting commercial launch systems and have been funding them since '06. Its not something new that Obama brought in.

            Have a look at some of the COTS contracts where they pay per milestone reached.


            • by Teancum ( 67324 )

              While that may be true, the current U.S. House of Representatives version of the NASA appropriation bill would eliminate this program altogether. Yes, it was something started by the Bush administration, but don't tell the Republicans that fact. They wouldn't believe you.

      • Re:Pay per flight (Score:5, Informative)

        by wiredlogic ( 135348 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @10:13PM (#33432006)

        When was the last time NASA dealt in dollar amounts under a million?

        The Navy launched the Clementine moon probe [] for ~$100K in 1994 and sparked the "Faster, Better, Cheaper" mantra within NASA. This freaked the space industry powerhouses because it threatened a significant reduction in the fat they could carve out of their contracts with the government if it took hold as an industry wide standard. Fortunately for them, some notable failed projects built around FBC led to the abandonment of that policy and the continued largess for publicly funded space programs.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Chris Burke ( 6130 )

      NASA won't actually be paying for the flights until they have flown successfully

      NASA has actually bought something here without specifying the requirements in infinite detail

      Basically undoing the two things (in decreasing order of importance) that have caused so many problems and budget problems in the past.

      The ridiculously detailed specifications not only meant the developer was highly constrained, it virtually guarantees that what you get is going to be a one-off made of fully custom parts which means rid

      • I'd heard that part of the new plan for NASA involved changing how they did procurement -- paying for results, not for development. I'm highly excited to see it put into action.

        The problem is that this approach only works for a subset of projects, mostly those where the contractor is already developing that technology regardless of NASA or where the cost is low. No company is going to invest millions into developing something on the off chance that NASA might like it once it's done. They want detailed req
        • While I appreciate your sentiment, are you sure?
          Why do you need a detailed requirements list other than "we'll pay up to $100 Million for each person you can launch to the ISS with a minimum of 10 people per year, and a maximum of 50. We will use the lowest cost provider available at the time of booking. Capacity must be first demonstrated by the company's CEO delivered to the ISS."
          Does it matter if it is one person per capsule or ten, does it matter if it takes one day to get there or twenty provided that

        • by Teancum ( 67324 )

          Having been on both sides of the fence when setting up a specification for a "request for bids" contract and writing up bids in private industry, I can certainly tell you that cutting cost is not the point. If you are genuinely looking at the cheapest option, you want to specify as few requirements as possible and leave the potential bids as broad as possible. On the other hand, if you are trying to scratch the back of a close friend, you specify in as much detail as possible all of the things you want in

  • by BJ_Covert_Action ( 1499847 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @07:46PM (#33431304) Homepage Journal
    You know, it's kind of funny. Lately with all the hub-ub regarding the closure of the shuttle program, the small launch companies have been getting a ton of publicity. We have companies like SpaceX and Orbital working their way into the medium and heavy lift rocket arenas. We have Blue Origin, Masten, Armadillo, and a half-dozen other small rocket/sounding rocket/propulsion companies developing launch platforms for low gravity environments (moon, Mars) and suborbital flights. One thing that I can't seem to find a lot of, however, is small, commercial payload companies. There are definitely a few. Companies like Clyde Space [] for instance are starting to offer available payloads on cubesat buses. There are also companies like Interorbital Sciences [] that are trying to push the small payload/tubesat architecture. And, of course, there are dozens of startups competing for the rover portion of the GLXP. Nonetheless, I would like to see more small satellite companies start cropping up. It seems like there would be a market for a company that could develop a common, reliable, small payload bus (about 250 - 500 kg) that could guarantee a mission life of XX many years and a power base of XX many kW that customers could mount scientific payloads on to test technologies, gather a bit of data, whatever.

    I guess that I am surprised to see commercial launch companies getting so much publicity, while the market for commercial satellite buses remains so small. It would be cool to see a company do to satellites what SpaceX is trying to do the launch market. Surely some science communities out there would pay to gather 0 g data for some field or another...
    • by insufflate10mg ( 1711356 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @08:13PM (#33431456)
      How can someone just whip out a "commercial satellite bus" business without having a launch vehicle? I'm sure as soon as the half-dozen companies you referenced (plus more that will inevitably be created) are fully functional, "payload launching" will be the next large commercial step.
      • Well I suppose I expected them to be developed in parallel. After all, why are all the launch companies racing for orbit if nobody has anything to put on the top of their rockets? I've been talking to some of the smaller launch companies lately and they are all very excited about their own projects and what they are capable of. Quite a few of them, however, when presented with the question, "What kinds of business relationships/partnerships have you explored for utilization of your launch platform?" have li
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by tomhath ( 637240 )

      I guess that I am surprised to see commercial launch companies getting so much publicity

      Surprised? The Obama administration is pushing the idea, so NASA is providing the publicity (one thing they were always good at). I'll be impressed when the rockets have more capacity than the surface-to-air missiles that were in use during the Vietnam War. Sounds like they still have a ways to go.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by khallow ( 566160 )

        I'll be impressed when the rockets have more capacity than the surface-to-air missiles that were in use during the Vietnam War.

        Why? Different tools for different jobs. Sure, I'd be impressed if your car could launch into orbit or shoot down fighter jets. But those tasks aren't the point of your car.

    • by quanticle ( 843097 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @08:54PM (#33431642) Homepage

      This may be on a smaller scale than you're imagining, but there does exist one such service today: TubeSat [].

    • by LoRdTAW ( 99712 )

      You know sitting hear reading this makes me feel that this generation could see some radical space stuff like our parents did in the 60's and 70's. Maybe its a bit premature but hopefully in the next 20 years we will get to see some real space exploration happen. Imagine bearing witness to the construction of a Moon base or manned Mars trip.

      Growing up with shuttle launches gets a bit old, although the space station is pretty damn awesome.

      • Maybe both if we do the Mars to Stay [] program.
        This is seriously good news. We need to let NASA work on the complex and not very profitable (it terms of money) exploration of Mars and asteroids, while letting private companies who have a strong incentive to make a cheaper and more reliable way to get to orbit let them commoditize it and make a buck in the process. The free market works when there's competition and the bad companies are allowed to fail.
    • by sconeu ( 64226 )

      The problem with Blue Origin is that they have a patent on "1-Click Launch" and will sue anyone else who uses it.

    • Take a look at Surrey Satellite Technology [] They have a selection of standard platforms and payloads (or BYO payload). Their standard platforms/payloads focus is EO and Comm/Nav, but not limited to those.

      However, if you go to any of the majors, they'll also start with a standard bus; they just don't market that part heavily because the value/money is elsewhere. I doubt there are very many commercial sats/payloads built on a one-off/custom bus these days. Those that are most likely

  • by Kepesk ( 1093871 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @07:51PM (#33431338) Homepage
    It's great to hear that both of these companies are getting some needed funding! Armadillo has said outright that they have a goal of putting tourists into space and Masten has hinted at it. I for one look forward to lighting a rocket under my butt and launching myself out of the atmosphere.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      I for one look forward to lighting a rocket under my butt and launching myself out of the atmosphere.

      Puh-lease! It's infinitely more sophisticated than that - you cling to the side and they stick your hands on with gaffer tape.

  • $475,000 (Score:3, Insightful)

    by guanxi ( 216397 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @07:56PM (#33431370)


    Not even a bump on a decimal point on a rounding error in NASA's budget. Signifies nothing.

    • That's true, but you have to look at it from the perspective of these companies as well. For them a sum of $475,000 is quite a lot. This may be one of those small government investments that changes the world (like the activities of DARPA, for example).

      • by guanxi ( 216397 )

        For them a sum of $475,000 is quite a lot

        It doesn't hurt, but I doubt it's much in their budgets either, especially split 3 ways. That's approx. one high-level employee per company, for one year.

    • It signifies either less money spent on launches or more launches. Either is a win.

  • Uh oh (Score:3, Interesting)

    by $RANDOMLUSER ( 804576 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @07:57PM (#33431374)
    I didn't know Jeff Bezos had a spaceflight company. Can we expect a flood of new patent applications where the idea ends with "in space"?
    • "Blue Origin soundproofing... in space, no one can hear you scream!"
    • I didn't know Jeff Bezos had a spaceflight company. Can we expect a flood of new patent applications where the idea ends with "in space"?

      Sure. In fact, while the control panel for his rocket has all kinds of knobs and stuff, you have the option to deliver your satellite into orbit with a single click of the launch button. That way you don't have to worry about silly things like pre-launch checks, order confirmation, or other such nonsense.

      Sure your satellite might end up in the wrong orbit - or planet

    • by Teancum ( 67324 )

      Blue Origin is especially famous at delivering product without hype... or for that matter any publicity at all. You hear more about stuff happening inside of the National Security Agency than what is going on in Blue Origin. About the only time they show up in the news is when they do something that simply has to be put into the public record, such as purchasing 10k acres in Texas. That you hadn't heard much about this company or that it even exists isn't too surprising.

  • the pusher system is designed to push astronauts out of the way of danger.

    • You are malfunctioning. Shoving is the answer. In any case there are no stairs in space so the point is moot.

  • by LaissezFaire ( 582924 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @09:28PM (#33431822) Journal
    Hopefully this will actually be cost effective. The space shuttle was a boondoggle "reusable" space ship that had to be rebuilt nearly from scratch every launch. I care not a whit about reusable, but I do care greatly about cost.
    • by Teancum ( 67324 )

      Armadillo Aerospace is famous for the fact that their budget on rocket fuel is one of their largest expenses. Think about that carefully and note that for most rocket development companies that the office supply budget for their engineering teams is usually higher than their rocket fuel budget. Masten has somehow been able to figure out how to fly their rockets at a cost even cheaper than Armadillo. Seriously, these guys are about as cheap as it gets and still be able to fly up to higher altitudes on a r

  • Before we know it these advanced pioneers of space flight might even get to 50 miles like the X-15 managed .... 40 years ago.

    Sorry , this whole nasa using private contractors launchers thing just makes me weep. Its like someone is rolling the clock backwards. What next - they proudly announce they're using private contactors to get them to 30,000 feet?

    • by mangu ( 126918 )

      Before we know it these advanced pioneers of space flight might even get to 50 miles like the X-15 managed .... 40 years ago.

      40 years ago men had gone to the moon, the X-15 was already flying 50 years ago.

      However, the X-15 needed the infrastructure of the USAF. It was launched from the wing of a B-52 bomber and landed on the dry lake bed at Edwards AFB. Probably, adjusted for inflation, $475,000 would be the cost of a single flight of the X-15.

      • by Viol8 ( 599362 )

        Yes , 50 , typo.

        With NASAs supposed 60 years experience building something like the X15 should be a no brainer now so it would probably
        cost a lot less than 475K a flight.

        This is nothing to do with furthering space technology and everything to do with the accountants being in charge.

    • The Kármán line [] lies at an altitude of 100 km (approx. 62 miles) above the Earth's sea level, and is commonly used to define the boundary between the Earth's atmosphere and outer space.[2] This definition is accepted by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), which is an international standard setting and record-keeping body for aeronautics and astronautics.

      Of all the X-15 missions, [] two flights (by the same pilot) qualified as space flights per the international (Féd

    • the X-15 managed .... 40 years ago.

      The fatal flaw of the X-15 design was that it was a government funded prototype. If Congressional budget hearings have taught me anything during my short time on this planet, it's that the federal government cannot be trusted to properly fund high-risk, high-gain ventures. The X-15 was a great vehicle, like many military and NASA vehicles before it. Nonetheless, it failed spectacularly because Congress controlled it's budget.

      That said, the sooner space access can be liberated from the choke-hold of con

    • by Teancum ( 67324 )

      If you can design, build, fuel, fly, and safely land an X-15 for under a half million dollars, I would be incredibly impressed too. I don't think the price of an X-15 flight, even in the 1960's, was a half million dollars, much less trying to build one of those vehicles.

      It is the cost here, not the bleeding edge achievement that is the big deal. Go ahead and spend the $100-$200 billion that has been projected merely to get a vehicle built that could go to Mars (the current projected cost of completing the

  • This is the next step to the stars, folks.
    Not by government-funded scientists and dreamers, but by entrepreneurs.
    Government funding is still driving the process; what we're seeing here is the handoff.

  • Progressives will love this because it's populist, and they hate traditional NASA programs because they "take" funds that could be used for social programs. But it puts money in the pockets of capitalists, and adds "carbon" to the atmosphere. What to do!

All seems condemned in the long run to approximate a state akin to Gaussian noise. -- James Martin