Getting things to pan
out may be less dependent on overcoming the technical challenges, which t/Space seems to have well in hand, than on a far more capricious endeavor: winning continued support from NASA. But the company's prospects brightened considerably this summer, when, without fanfare or formal announcement, NASA created a set of programs within Exploration Systems called Innovative Procurements. Program executive Brant Sponberg explains that the direction has come directly from NASA chief Michael Griffin to "try to bring new actors into what we do," to open NASA's manned space program to entrepreneurs, who will be paid fixed fees for building working hardware. Whereas companies like t/Space were once pursuing contracts to design and build NASA-owned-and-
operated vehicles, they now have the option of being the owners and operators themselves. "The idea," Sponberg says, "is we can enter into a contract where we pay for milestones, so someone has to do such-and-such demonstration or such-and-such test. They have to do it on their own nickel, but if they're successful, then we'll pay for the milestone. Ultimately, the last milestone is getting to orbit or doing the final demonstration."
Gump estimates that t/Space needs $500 million to complete its CXV by 2009 in a cost-conscious program. That's about what a single space-shuttle launch costs, and it's a bargain compared with the billions NASA plans to pay big aerospace for a ship that won't be ready for at least another six years. The company has already accomplished a lot on just its first $6 million. It's gathered a crack team of engineers and contractors, including Scaled Composites, built a full-scale mock-up of its proposed space capsule, conducted a series of drop tests to demonstrate an innovative method for air-launching spacecraft, and tested splashdown techniques with another full-size mock-up.
That first $6 million will run out by this fall. To take the next step, t/Space will have to win more money from NASA-a good bet, given the space agency's new direction-and also attract it from private investors. One investor in particular has a pressing need for a commercial orbital spaceship: Robert Bigelow, whose Bigelow Aerospace is aiming to launch the first commercial space station by 2010. Bigelow says he's prepared to buy an orbital spaceship and that he's started talks with several companies, although he won't yet say whether he favors t/Space.single page
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