June 21, 2024
1 Solar System Way, Planet Earth, USA
Space

Commercialization is key to continued US space leadership.

The world recognizes that space is crucial to global security, scientific advances, economic growth and global sustainability.

From the birth of the space program to today, we have much to celebrate: from viewing distant galaxies through the James Webb Space Telescope to the resurgence of human spaceflight, including the rise of a new class of private astronauts.

To ensure the United States remains a leader in space, NASA is pursuing key strategic priorities: fostering a trade-led low-Earth orbit (LEO) space economy, bringing the United States to cislunar space, and returning Americans to space. Moon and Mars. .

Time is not on our side. Without bold action and a unified front of trade and government partners, the United States could fall behind China and other countries that are already seeking a foothold on the Moon and strengthen their presence in LEO.

At the end of July, I will launch 2024 ASCEND, where government and business leaders from aerospace and other key industries will come together to strategize on how to accelerate progress toward an independent and sustainable space ecosystem.

NASA astronauts Loral O'Hara and Jasmin Moghbeli join 2023 ASCEND live from aboard the International Space Station

Transition to a commerce-driven LEO ecosystem

In LEO, space startups are driving promising developments in space manufacturing and services. Microgravity scientists are designing the perfect artificial retina, growing hearts and other organs and tissues for transplants, and manufacturing higher-performance optical fibers, among other advances that will benefit life on Earth.

Despite these advances, the LEO space economy is still largely driven by government use cases. That must change, especially now that the clock is ticking for the International Space Station (ISS) to complete its mission in the next five years. Given current geopolitical tensions, the United States cannot afford space in LEO after the ISS program ends.

The goal of the Commercial LEO Destinations (CLD) program is to deploy at least two operational commercial space stations in LEO by 2030, when the ISS is scheduled to be decommissioned. However, the successful handover of LEO from government to commercial control depends on the commercial readiness of these stations and the maturity of the market, which must include non-NASA customers.

The biggest challenge of this public-private partnership is championing LEO in the commercial market.

Modeling of previous commercial programs

The CLD program depends on market viability and the financial commitment of investors who contribute to developing one or more space stations before the ISS deorbits.

Building on the success of the US commercial crew and cargo programs, NASA hopes to accelerate its LEO ambitions, using the partnership model that served as a cornerstone of these previous programs. In both cases, there were common attributes that do not apply to these new programs.

For example, the market was known and predictable, and NASA covered the vast majority of the cost of developing these new systems. In contrast, NASA will invest substantially less in commercial destinations, which will rely heavily on commercial customers to become a reality. Additionally, it is significantly more complex to build a human-scale lunar lander and lunar mobility services than it is to build a space capsule.

NASA has learned many lessons from commercial cargo and crew programs, both from a technology and business perspective, that could be applied to the CLD program. During ASCEND 2024, we will address these lessons.

The LEO space economy depends on an independent and robust space sector, driven not by government but by commercial leadership. ASCEND will address how the industry collaboratively drives that transition).

Adopt a public-private partnership model

Clearly, the key to a strong LEO economy is partnerships. Likely investments may not fall exclusively on traditional prime contractors and the government, but on the broader spectrum of private companies and financial institutions. Bringing private sources to the LEO market will require new mindsets and cooperation, including NASA relinquishing its historical control over programs to allow the commercial industry to lead this new market evolution.

In recent discussions, the ASCEND community has noted that we potentially need to reduce competition between participants in the commercial space while also delineating clear boundaries between collaboration and competition. Finding the right balance is crucial to fostering a healthy ecosystem that promotes innovation and growth while avoiding unnecessary conflicts that could hinder progress. Attendees at the ASCENDxTexas event in February also noted in their Detailed summary of the interactive session that there is a change in the dynamics of space technology development, and that NASA is no longer the only driver of innovation. This underlines the need for a paradigm shift towards shared practices and knowledge initiatives that benefit the entire industry, fostering collaboration and efficiency.

Risk identification and management

Achieving a robust commercial LEO ecosystem requires investment from both space startups and larger aerospace players who tend to be more risk averse as they are accountable to stakeholders. NewSpace Index™ by SpaceWorks tracks the performance of publicly traded companies within the space industry relative to those within key US stock indices, as well as in comparison to traditional space companies. The latest index finds that several new companies that went public in recent years have only 15% of their value since the beginning of their public trading. At the same time, traditional aerospace companies like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, which are listed on the Traditional Space Index, are doing so on the stock market. This tells us that new, smaller space players, who have taken significant risks in building a commercial LEO market, are not being rewarded.

Taking place July 30-August 1 in Las Vegas, 2024 ASCEND will continue to shape the future of space commerce

Join the conversation

2024 ASCEND is where some of the smartest people on the planet will come together to talk about the future of space, the challenges of leading the development of the cislunar economy, and how best to forge a path forward. There will be multiple opportunities to engage in meaningful dialogue. We are pleased to welcome thought leaders to the ASCEND stage, including Matthew Weinzierl, senior associate dean and chair of the MBA program; Joseph and Jacqueline Elbling, professors of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, and Michael López-Alegría, chief astronaut at Axiom Space.

Weinzierl will join Brendan Rosseau, a national security space consultant and Harvard Business School researcher, as they discuss what they learned from writing their new book. Room to grow: unlocking the final frontier. The book is filled with stories from some of the most interesting space companies and programs driving change today.

In the session, Building the Commercial Space Ecosystem, López-Alegría will have a fireside chat with BryceTech Founder and CEO Carissa Christensen, where they will share stories from the last 20 years that will chronicle how we got to where we are today and make some predictions for the future.

Other sessions will address America's future in orbit: commercial space stations and setting the stage for a future commercial lunar economy, including the technical and economic challenges that must be resolved to scale services and support the burgeoning lunar economy of the future.

It is a crucial moment for our industry. Whether your focus is on the Moon or LEO, the opportunities in space are enormous and so are the risks to our global competitiveness and security if we don't get it right. 2024 ASCEND is where we will tackle the tough questions. We hope to see you there.

About the Author

Julie Van Kleeck serves as executive producer of ASCEND at AIAA. She retired from Aerojet Rocketdyne in 2019 as vice president of the Launch and Advanced Space Business Unit.

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