A paper of mine was published last week in the New Space Journal, “Ingredients and Anticipated Results for Characterizing and Assessing NASA and U.S. Department of Defense Partnerships and Commercial Programs.”
Yes, that’s a mouthful.
I often write about what’s next for NASA, the commercial space sector, and how these must move ahead together. My favoritism for graphs and data shows, but these are a means to an end. My enjoyment is writing about the meaning and possibilities behind the numbers. This paper is about the latter, qualities, not quantities. The “New Space” journal is where I ask what best describes our “new space” projects?
In a nutshell, certain ingredients characterize NASA and U.S. Department of Defense partnerships and commercial space programs. The ingredients are obvious features, if not easy to pin down.
For partnerships during development, a “checklist”:
- Is the government committed to buying the product/service once available?
- Does the government invest in many partners in very early development phases?
- Does the government invest in moving at least two partners toward operational capability?
- Did the private partner invest significant dollars in the project?
- Does the government payout funds only at tangible milestones for results (not activity)?
- Will the private sector retain ownership of the product/service?
- Does the private sector partner demonstrate a commitment to a non-government market for the same product/service?
- Is the government management office relatively small?
- Has the government enlisted a standing, outside advisory group?
Once a project development finishes (if it does), the word “commercial” applies. (Though outside of contracts and formalities, the words “partnership” and “commercial” are used interchangeably.) So again, a checklist can tell us a lot.
- Will there be at least two providers (and more competition along the way)?
- Is the government buying at a “firm fixed price”?
- Is the partner attracting non-government business?
There are reasons all these ingredients get baked in the pie (the “anticipated results” for all this.) One is how traditional “cost-plus” contracting is more often than not “heads I win, tails you lose,” from the private sector’s point of view. But there is a lot of rhyme and reason here to these ingredients.
So rather than “contractors,” we move to “partners,” and NASA, the DOD, and the private sector sink or swim – together. An anticipated result is, yes, more results. We move away from paying to cut the grass by the hour, which goes slowly. Very. Slowly.
But what does this checklist mean, and what use is it? When you look at these ingredients vs. projects, you see patterns. We can look back to SpaceHab, X-33, EELV (now NSSL), Commercial Cargo and Crew to ISS, and XSP. NASA’s Commercial Cargo program had a lot going on, from rockets to spacecraft.
The more these ingredients you can check off, the more likely your project will succeed. Not getting canceled, success. Meeting many of your initial goals, success. Wildly exceeding goals? You probably checked off the whole list.
Looking forward, what does this mean for commercial programs in progress? We have CLPS, a crewed lander, spacesuits, private stations, a Gateway, and launching cargo (again, now to deep space.) Read your ingredients list, and you’d be surprised at what you see. What does the checklist say about the prospects for these partnerships and commercial programs? At the least, the “checklist” tells you where to pay attention and ask questions. It also says where to be concerned or where things seem on track.
Not everything is about numbers, as I point out in the paper. I dive deep into numbers elsewhere and often. This is a different tack, like the saying, because not everything that counts can be counted.