Private Space Technology Powers Up

From TechnologyReview.com:

In the coming weeks the Obama administration will decide the future of U.S. human spaceflight. A summary report by the committee tasked with reviewing NASA’s current plans and providing recommendations suggests utilizing the commercial sector for unmanned, and perhaps manned, missions as a way to reduce government costs. Franklin Chang Diaz, a former NASA astronaut and founder and president of Ad Astra Rocket Company, agrees.

Rocket science: Franklin Chang Diaz (top) is a former NASA astronaut and founder of Ad Astra Rocket Company. The company has developed a prototype plasma rocket, the VX-200 (bottom), that recently achieved 201 kilowatts of power.
Credit: José Díaz, La Nación (top); Ad Astra Rocket Company (bottom)

Diaz spoke at the Space Investment Summit in Boston last week. His company–spun off from his work at NASA–is developing a propulsion system called the variable specific impulse magnetoplasma rocket (VASIMR) to replace traditional chemical systems, which are less suitable for deep space missions to Mars and beyond (read a previous interview with Diaz, in which he explains the technology.) Last week, a prototype VASIMR engine, the VX-200, achieved a significant target: 200 kilowatts of power, the amount necessary for the company to start developing its flight version, which is expected to be ready in 2013.

Technology Review spoke with Diaz at the summit.

Technology Review: In your talk today, you said that “NASA is a victim of its own success,” and that now is the right time for the private sector. Could you expand on this?

Franklin Chang Diaz: The agency really transformed the world in space with the achievements of the moon landings, but the whole world changed, and NASA didn’t change. NASA remained in the glory days of the past, and 40 years have gone by, and NASA is still the same NASA as the 1960s. And I don’t mean it in a bad way. It was so wonderful what was done, and people were completely fascinated by it. But a new opportunity has been created because NASA’s fascination with its own past in the present has created a gap, a hole, which is perfect for the private sector to move into.

The private sector is going to fill the void in rapid access to low earth orbit, allowing NASA to be NASA, to do what NASA was really meant to do, which is look forward to the frontier. Let the private enterprise build the base camp now that we know how to do it, and NASA can go conquer the summit.

TR: There are a lot of companies building technology for access to low earth orbit, but some still have years of development work and need funding. Can the private sector realistically get it done soon?

FCD: Absolutely. Rockets are not a new invention. Reliable rockets were built in World War II, and they were perfected by NASA in the 50s and 60s, and other countries as well. Also, the technology for rocket propulsion is not rocket science anymore. However, we do need advanced propulsion, which is a completely untapped area of research; very little work has been done, and we need to move into that realm because we are not going to get to Mars on chemical rockets. It is going to be too fragile and too dangerous [of a mission] for chemical rockets.

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