Following the termination of the space shuttle program in 2011, NASA needed a new, safe and reliable method of transporting experiments, supplies and crew to and from the International Space Station.
To answer that challenge, Alan Lindenmoyer created a new way for NASA to partner with the private sector to build rockets and spacecraft at a dramatically reduced cost to taxpayers. In the process, he has reenergized the U.S. launch industry and is making it possible for our country to continue to lead the world in space research and exploration.
Tapping into his broad NASA experience in both technical engineering and contract management for the International Space Station, Lindenmoyer designed and managed a novel program that allows NASA to contract for orbital transportation services rather than purchase the space vehicles.
Under this program, private flights have transported science experiments and supplies to the International Space Station six times since 2012.
“This really is a dance between the government and private companies, but there was no music written for this dance,” said Paul Wilde, a technical advisor with the Federal Aviation Administration. “It’s a completely new way of doing business. Alan took it from vision to reality.”
In the mid-2000s, NASA decided to purchase space cargo services from private companies to reduce costs rather than have the government own and operate the spacecraft. But the plan included no template or policies on how to partner with industry.
It began with NASA starting up the Commercial Cargo and Crew Program Office and Lindenmoyer becoming the manager and the “brain trust,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “He was pivotal because until he got the job no one had done it and we really didn’t know how to do it.”
Lindenmoyer activated Space Act Agreementsâ€”transaction authority the agency possessed, but had never used in this way. NASA used these agreements to stimulate the commercial space industry to develop and demonstrate space transportation capabilities, a chief NASA goal for the crew and cargo program.
It worked. Two companies—SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation—spent substantial amounts of their own money to design, build, test and operate vehicles. They now are free to market their space flight services to public or private organizations and individuals.
“What Alan did in pioneering that partnership and a whole new way for NASA to do business with commercial space was really top-notch,” said Wilde.
At first, the idea of using private rockets and spaceships was a contentious one: People both within and outside the agency were adamant that only NASA or its international government partners could provide flights to the space station. But Lindenmoyer persevered.
“The key thing is that Alan had the vision and the persistence to push a program through in the face of frequent opposition,” Bolden said. “He was a visionary—a pioneer—and on something that nobody wanted and now everyone loves.”
Lindenmoyer gathered a team of 10 people and within four months issued requests for proposals. NASA had $500 million to invest in the companies’ endeavors—far less than the typical billions spent on new vehicles, but meaningful nonetheless as seed money. Lindenmoyer reserved $15 million for running the program and providing technical expertise.
His resourcefulness included hiring a venture capitalist to help evaluate business plans. To make the deals enticing both for industry and NASA, the agreements allowed the companies to keep the intellectual property for their designs and vehicles, and made it difficult for NASA to cancel. The agency could terminate the agreements only if companies didn’t perform, the agency didn’t get the necessary appropriations or there was mutual agreement to do so.
Once agreements were signed, Lindenmoyer established a series of payment milestones that occurred every three months. NASA was not paying development costs, but rather for successful performance of work completed. If the companies failed to meet the milestones, they were not paid and faced the possibility of termination.
NASA’s decision to allow companies to fly their vehicles to the space station on demonstration flights and be captured by its robotic arm presented an “extremely difficult challenge,” Lindenmoyer said.
“A lot of people in NASA didn’t want these companies coming anywhere near the $100 billion space station with its international astronauts,” Lindenmoyer said.
The success of the cargo program bodes well for the commercial crew program, which Lindenmoyer launched but then transitioned to another NASA center. According to Wilde, the U.S. would prefer not to pay Russia $70 million to fly each American astronaut to the space station.
“I want American dollars to go to American companies for space transport,” Wilde said. “We’re one big contract away from sealing the deal to allow us to stop counting on the Russians to get into space,” he added. “Alan’s program paves the way for that.”
Bolden agreed. “Alan made a huge difference in enhancing the economic well-being of the nation,” he said.