Today's Cache | NASA splits human spaceflight unit

Today's Cache dissects big themes at the intersection of technology, business and policy. Written by John Xavier, tech news lead at The Hindu

Updated - October 20, 2021 01:22 pm IST

Published - October 04, 2021 10:17 am IST


NASA's split tilts the balance in favour of private operators


Private enterprises have changed the dynamics of low-Earth orbit (LEO) and outer space missions. The change has made NASA re-think its future missions, and how it will execute them. That’s why the agency is splitting its human spaceflight unit by creating two new mission directorates.

The reorganisation will separate the unit’s human space exploration into two parts. One will make the agency focus on longer-term mission like travel to moon and Mars. The other will look at near-term operations of the International Space Station (ISS) and other near-to-Earth missions.

This change at the core of NASA’s structure reveals how commercialisation of space travel is making the top space agency cede power to private enterprises, such as SpaceX. It also underscores the importance of corporations in future missions.

The split creates two leadership roles at the agency. Jim Free, who retired from NASA in 2017, will return to the agency to lead the longer-term missions. He will define and manage projects focused on moon and Mars missions. His unit will also take charge of the Artemis programme that seeks to put humans on the lunar landscape once again in 2024.

The near-Earth missions will be led by Kathy Lueders, whose unit will focus on rocket launches, ISS management and commercialisation of LEO.  Beyond short- and long-term missions, the division of labour within the space agency will also help it handle commercial players effectively.

Take the case of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. The two billionaires are racing against each other to put LEO satellites in the sky. For now, Musk’s Starlink is far ahead in the race with nearly 1,300 LEO satellites in space. Bezos’ Kuiper has signed a contract with United Launch Alliance (ULA) to send its satellites up. Its planned constellation will dot the sky with over 3,000 LEO satellites.

Even as the competition intensifies, Amazon has filed a harshly worded complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), accusing Musk of “launching rockets without approval [and] building an unapproved launch tower”.

In a separate move, Bezos’ space company Blue Origin has challenged NASA’s decision to award a $2.9 billion lunar lander contract to Musk’s SpaceX. These ‘star-wars’ fought on Earth will idea land on Lueders’ turf. Between Free and Lueders’, the latter may find more action on the ground and a little over.


(T his column was emailed on September 22.)


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