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NASA is once again planning to launch a private rocket (the SpaceX Falcon Heavy) in the New Year to blast a missions directly to the Moon, and kick off a demonstration of its effort to develop a system for sending instruments and hardware down to the lunar surface. In an onstage conversation with TechCrunch’s NY executive editor Ryan Lawler, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine gave an example of how it might work, and went into a bit more detail about how students, universities and small businesses can help NASA develop and build hardware and technology for the future.
“We’re in a kind of renaissance period where commercial companies and academia can partner with NASA and leverage our resources for commercial missions,” Bridenstine said. “But also work with us to develop an independent high tech industry on the moon.”
Commercial Moon missions are actually a rare partnership for NASA, which has traditionally worked on building partnerships with international agencies that can integrate it with their own specific goals and needs. Bridenstine acknowledged that this approach hasn’t always worked well, since that involves working with governments that are notoriously protective of their own resources, but cited an example of the benefits of establishing a more independent path when it comes to commercial partnerships for research and innovation.
“We’re in a really interesting position where we are a very strategic agency,” he said. “We have a national vision that needs us to take this to the moon, but we also are putting our money into new and emerging industries, whether it’s in aerospace, whether it’s in advanced manufacturing and building anything from packaging to drones or NASA next generation reactor, we’re innovating in a way that the government has never done before.”
“So, we have an opportunity to do things differently and do it by partnering with industry and academia. That’s why I’m excited about the 30 Days, 30 Years campaign we’re launching in December where we are empowering students to go learn about science and technology at different companies around the world,” he added.
Both Aldrin and Bridenstine describe the idea of a new space frontier as a viable path forward, a parallel vision toward which they both supported the Apollo missions of the 1960s and early 1970s. The goal, he explained, is to facilitate a new stage of exploration, and establish a new space-based economy, which he compared to the gold rush of the 1800s.
Bridenstine went on to explain that about half the funding for NASA’s missions comes from private interests; for example, government support of NASA missions has actually been declining since the 1970s, but private business support for human exploration has remained steady.
“There are some companies where you say, ‘This is great, what do they do?’ It’s astronaut ride-sharing. It’s landing vehicles that carry rockets,” he said. “And then there are some companies that are working with NASA and NASA is working with them, and it’s even faster on the ground if you’re working with that company, because it’s so easy to make quick decisions.”