New Mexico Universities must invest in faculty with commercial space capability now.
Commercialization of space is becoming more important to our national leaders every year as commercial companies demonstrate low-cost increased access to space from commercial spaceports is possible. “The United States Defense Department needs to be thinking seriously about commercial alternatives in order to meet its growth needs over the next decades…the best application of funds is to take advantage of the commercial satellite provider’s agility and speed to market.” Paul Mattear, director Intelsat General posted this comment on the company’s blog. General William Shelton is commander of the U.S Space Command. Space News reported General Shelton’s comments while speaking at the Space Policy Institute. He would like to contract with the commercial sector to purchase wideband satellite communications. Cellular network communications are relatively limited bandwidth by comparison. Wide band satellite communications are used to support the soldier in the field. Their equipment and ground capabilities are often in remote locations. Support from satellites is essential to our military, and getting them to space is getting cheaper. General Shelton is supporting involvement of commercial capability not only procuring launches but also having commercial companies build the military’s satellites. The conjunction of defense department budget cuts and increased capability of commercial providers is creating new opportunities for commercial space companies.
NASA has contracted with Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) and Orbital Sciences Corporation who are now making routine cargo deliveries to the International Space Station. These commercial companies, we hope will soon be joined by Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser. All three companies were contracted by NASA, through the unquestionably successful Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. Congress took the first bold step on this commercialization path when it established the COTS program under President Bush. The second bold step taken by President Obama, was to cancel the Shuttle Program and turn supply of the U.S. portion of the space station over to private enterprise.
Competition for government funds is fierce. No longer is the space industry insulated from the larger environment of the global economy. Government contracting and procurement practices of the past are slowly changing. There may be a place for more than a few universities to get back into the space business.
I say back into the space business is because universities, including NMSU, helped create our national space program. Now, we may have a break in the cloud cover. New Mexico Space Grant and NMSU have partnered with the Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) office program in small test flights, and we are also partnering with the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) in development of small satellites. But there is more, much more opportunity for universities in helping solve government problems.
Jeff Faust, panel chair at ISPCS 2013, recently reported from the “Space Exploration: How and Why”, conference in Arizona. Steve Isakowitz, President of Virgin Galactic said, “what inspired me was the Apollo Program, but now we have a new generation of young people who are saying it was SpaceShipOne.” SpaceShipOne’s sister spaceship SpaceShipTwo will soon have its permanent operational home at Spaceport America. SpaceShipOne is the vehicle that won the XPRIZE ten years ago. At the same conference, John Morse, chief executive officer of the BoldlyGo Institute said, “There is so much world-class science left on the floor because the government doesn’t have enough resources…we want to look at partnering with universities and aerospace companies to …support philanthropic funding models and commercialization of technology to support space science missions.” Do you see what I see?
Last year, I met with Mark Sirangelo, Vice President of Space Systems at Sierra Nevada Corporation. He said he’s like to see students working together to solve large problems of the industry, problems that will move into the future of the young as they grow in their careers. Another speaker at ISPCS 2013 was Michael Simpson, President of the Secure World Foundation. They advise governments on large problems like orbital debris. We had a visit from Jacobs scientists this week, seeking support from NMSU to help work not only on orbital debris problems, but also on space weather and human spaceflight research and large data analysis problems.
The time for the leadership of our education systems to reach up is now. NMSU and New Mexico can invest simply by hiring faculty with commercial space research and development expertise. Educational leaders and state leaders, examine how to encourage even more cross-collaboration. We have great community leaders here in Southern New Mexico. Let’s start.