Main Engine Cut Off

Issue #13

This week, NASA officially announced that NanoRacks will be adding an airlock onto the International Space Station to add capabilities and capacity to their already-up-and-running business. That announcement, along with some early insight into NASA policy in 2017, got me thinking about commercial opportunities within government programs.

Whenever the eventual retirement of the ISS is brought up, a combination of the following thoughts is often not far behind:

Without the ISS, NASA wouldn’t have created the Commercial Cargo and Crew programs. Without those programs, SpaceX wouldn’t have gotten the funding it needed to continue on in the early days. Orbital ATK wouldn’t be building their Cygnus spacecraft, Sierra Nevada wouldn’t be building Dream Chaser, and on, and on.

The insinuation is that once the ISS is retired, all opportunities for private companies will dry up. This common line of thought is, if I may put it lightly, a steaming pile of trash.

It’s indisputable that the ISS is one of the easier-to-reach targets for programs like Commercial Cargo and Crew. It also promises a higher flight rate than other targets, because it currently relies heavily on resupply missions and crew rotations. But the ISS isn’t the only NASA program—past, present, or future—that could (or will) incorporate contributions from private companies in the style of Commercial Cargo and Crew.

Rather, the ISS is the first to prove out this interaction between government and industry, and will serve as a role model for future programs. Look no further than NASA’s NextSTEP program for proof.

The old cost-plus model is dying. The new model is based on fixed-price contracts with the contractors designing, building, operating, and owning their spacecraft, and offering their services to NASA as part of a larger program.

But there’s a larger point here, beyond the way NASA structures their programs—entrepreneurial spirit and hunger. Go back and listen to my conversation with Mike Johnson, Chief Designer at NanoRacks, and hear how NanoRacks started and has grown to where they are today. Watch as Sierra Nevada tries to find every opportunity for Dream Chaser—from NASA, to the UN, and beyond.

Elon Musk wasn’t sitting on a park bench like Sad Keanu when NASA walked up to him with a multi-billion dollar contract to graciously save his young company. SpaceX identified a lucrative opportunity and pursued it with hunger.

The ISS isn’t the key to this spirit. Rather, the programs surrounding ISS are proving out how it can be channeled effectively to contribute to something larger.

The growing entrepreneurial spirit in this industry isn’t going to burn out when the ISS burns up.

Thank you!

Thanks for reading the thirteenth issue of Main Engine Cut Off Weekly. Each week, I bring you what I find interesting and important in spaceflight, and you can get it however you like best—blog, podcast, or this here column. If you like what I’m doing, I’d really appreciate your support. Head over to Patreon and become a patron for as little as $1 per month. Everything I do is supported entirely by readers and listeners like you, and every little bit of support helps. Big thanks to those of you out there supporting!

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Thanks for reading, and I’ll talk to you next week.

— Anthony