United Launch Alliance is partnering with NASA to create the next innovation in low-Earth orbit exploration, despite not receiving federal funding for the project.
The alliance signed the first-ever unfunded space act agreement with NASA’s Commercial Crew Development Program to continue work on the Atlas V rocket, an intermediate-class launch vehicle and new transportation system for the International Space Station.
Phil McAlister, the acting director for the Commercial Space Development team, told Federal News Radio that the partnership is evolving the rocket’s design so that it will be ready for certification and future routine launches.
“In this new partnership,” McAlister said. “We plan to say what we want and we allow American industry to decide how they want to do that.” The director added that historically NASA has taken a more hands-on role in the design and decision process, but now the agency wants the private sector to be more involved in owning, operating and developing the commercial spacecraft.
Particularly, the team of developers is turning its attention to making space exploration a more routine process. McAlister said the previous space shuttle had worthy capabilities, but “it never achieved the goal of really routine access to space because it was complex and it was very costly.” He added the new collaboration hopefully will be more efficient and cost effective for the agency.
Additionally, NASA is hoping to sell the new spacecraft to other agencies, researchers, and even independent citizens interested in lower-Earth orbit innovation. He said that many spacecraft developers have already expressed interest in using the Atlas V to launch their spacecrafts to the space station.
“It’s a good rocket,” he said. “It has a long history of reliable launches. So I think this agreement is going to be very good for both NASA and the United Launch Alliance.”
In contrast, McAlister said NASA signed funded space agreements with four other companies since April, but the United Launch Alliance was not chosen at that time. However, he said, “NASA is opened and available to sign future agreements with as many companies that are actively developing these crew transportation systems,” but he is not sure whether the agency will sign any more unfunded agreements in the future.
As for the funded partnerships, the director said that each company is able to add a great deal of variety and innovation to prospective designs for the new transportation systems.
“We’re allowing each one of these companies that are under the funded space act agreements their own design,” he added. “They are going to own the design. They’re going to make the decisions on how it’s going to operate and that allows them to bring a lot of innovation into the mix.”
But NASA will not be totally be detached from the new development process of the commercial spacecraft, McAllister said that the agency will continue to play an vital role in assuring that the new designs meet safety standards.
“NASA is still the final obiter of safety,” he said. “We’re not going to be relaxing or reducing any of our safety requirements. They’re going to be the same safety requirements that we apply to any traditional NASA developed vehicle. We’re just doing it in a slightly different way, and we hope to be more efficient also.”
The insight process, as McAlister called it, will require NASA personnel to actively oversee safety and operations on the factory floor of each company. NASA will also manage the spacecraft certification process.