Apparently unbeknownst to most people in the space blogosphere, there was a second space related conference going on in Silicon Valley this past week (at about the same time). This conference, the second “Next Generation Exploration Conference” was an invitation-only conference for young, “emerging global space leaders” put on by NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate’s “Commercial Development Policy” group (now headed by Ken Davidian), and by NASA’s Innovative Partnership Program. The focus of the working conference was commercial opportunities in cislunar space, and our goal was to put together a document overviewing some of the commercial opportunities in cislunar space, fleshing out some detail on the nearest term and most feasible of those opportunities, and making suggestions to NASA (and industry/academia) on what could be done to help enable those opportunities.
It was a lot of fun. I missed the first day (due to an important meeting we had down in Mojave on Monday and Tuesday) of the conference, but was able to make it there in time for the start of the working groups.
I was worried at first that with the sponsor being ESMD, and with the “alt.VSE” conference going on across town at Stanford at the same time, that there would be lots of pressure to turn the conference in a NASA-centric direction. In the preplanning discussions, I got chastised by one of the other attendees for suggesting that the Constellation architecture and Global Exploration Strategy didn’t serve as much of a “point of departure” for the working groups, since it was pretty much irrelevant to commercial lunar development. I was worried that the desire to toe the NASA line would end up turning the conference into a brainstorming session for NASA-serving lunar businesses that 20 years from now might be feasible if NASA happens to get its architecture built and lunar base started.
Fortunately, Ken was able to find a way to focus the conference that was much more productive without degenerating into Ares-bashing, which I tend to be frequently guilty of. First, he made an important distinction between “commercialization” and “commercial development”. I wasn’t at the conference on the day he explained this concept, but as I understand it, “commercialization” is more or less taking some NASA-provided function, and contracting it out to the private sector. This could be things like “commercial” ISS resupply, where NASA is having the private sector serve it in a more cost effective manner than it could do on its own. “Commercial development” on the other hand is when a commercial actor creates a good or service to meet the needs of various groups, among which NASA may or may not be one of them. For instance, if a company were to develop a crew/cargo transport vehicle for servicing Bigelow stations as well as the ISS, that might be more of a commercial development. His point was that while commercialization was good, true commercial development was better. The other thing Ken did was to suggest focusing primarily on near-term projects taking the current status quo as the point of departure.
Anyhow, with that focus, we split up into working groups. I joined the “Lunar Access” working group, which consisted of several NASA employees (including several people from the COTS program), several university students, and a couple of people from “Big” aerospace, and one or two other representatives of the entrepreneurial space access community (including the guy at SpaceX who is in charge of most of their lunar business development).
We started out by looking at the long-term of what kind of commercial ecosystem we’d like to see in cislunar space over the next few decades, and then focusing back on transportation segments and business opportunities that were either feasible now, or that needed to be started in the near term. The big conclusion we came to was that the transportation needs of commercial lunar ventures (frequent access, low marginal cost, etc) did not line up very well with the planned Constellation architecture, and that therefore commercial lunar transportation would be important for a lunar ventures. We weren’t necessarily suggesting abandoning Constellation, just stating that for non-governmental ventures, other transportation options needed to be available. So as I said, we worked back to the near-term to figure out what steps would need to (and could be) taken in the near term, and spent most of our time fleshing out the ideas that we came up with. I’ll probably go into more detail in further blog posts, but the seven opportunities we found most interesting were:
- Developing off-the-shelf Automated Rendezvous and Docking systems
- Space Tugs
- Space Ferries (I’ll go into the distinction between these two in another post)
- Propellant Depots
- Standardized Lunar Microlander Buses
- Testbeds for proving out technologies on orbit
- An ESPA-ring derived secondary payload system for lunar payloads
I was mostly involved in the second, third, and fourth ideas. So, we fleshed each of these ideas out, including putting some thoughts down into who could use these services, who might be actors in supplying or helping develop these services, what things NASA or industry could do to enable these opportunities, and what sort of time frame these things would likely occur in. It probably would help if next time they do this, they involve more business people, particularly among the mentoring/moderating staff (most of the people in my group were engineers). I imagine it shouldn’t be too hard to find angel investors, VC managers, and other Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who are interested enough in space, and interested enough in working with young people to help provide a more thorough business analysis. But, as it is, the results we were able to put together were at least rather informative. Once the finalized document we produced is ready, I’ll post a link to it so you all can see more of what we came up with.