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Human Space Exploration in Three Acts

Updated: Jan 31, 2022

By Steven Gonzalez, Venture Partner, Seldor Capital

The brief history of human space exploration can be divided into 3 phases. In Space 1.0, countries raced to the moon in earnestthere was a space race to go to the moon. It was a competition for political superiority demonstrated, in part, through the technical achievements and innovation necessary to reach the moon. During this first phase, NASA followed a more ‘‘traditional model.’’ It developed all of the required technology it required in-house or through procurements to the aerospace industry that supported government projects. The technology to accomplish such an incredible feat was not available elsewhere. By necessity, NASA grew the expertise and facilities inside of the agency.

During Space 2.0, human space exploration moved from competition to collaboration across numerous space agencies to create the International Space Station (ISS). Throughout that period, NASA was in a ‘‘transitional model.’’ It was moving towards a business model where not all of the capabilities required to accomplish the mission were found within the agency. In this transitional phase, NASA has looked to leverage the expertise and capabilities of the international space agencies to construct the largest orbiting laboratory for an international crew of astronauts. This vehicle has provided insights into the effects of the microgravity environment on space explorers, and translated to benefits for life on earth.

In the current phase, Space 3.0, human space exploration is able to leverage the increasing capabilities found in the growing commercial space industry. NASA is moving toward a ‘‘network model’’ where, in addition to the international community, it can leverage the capabilities of both industries that are unrelated to aerospace and the commercial space market. The start of this phase is best captured in the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services System program. During this program, NASA tested the market’s capability to provide commercial access to the ISS for cargo delivery and eventually for crew access to the vehicle. The success of this program enabled NASA to pursue the Commercial Resupply Services Cargo and Commercial Crew programs.

NASA is now looking to leverage the innovation community in preparation for the Artemis mission. The Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program is a public-private partnership model aimed at seeking commercial capabilities to support more extensive human spaceflight missions in and beyond cislunar space—the space near Earth that extends just beyond the Moon. In addition, the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program is looking for the commercial capability to deliver payloads to the surface of the moon. In the recent award on May 31, 2019, 3 commercial service providers were selected that are less than a dozen years old and growing fast. Shortly afterwards in November 2019, NASA added five more commercial service providers to deliver payloads to the lunar surface. This year, 2022 will be exciting as we will witness the first commercial payloads transported to the moon by Intuitive Machines and Astrobotics.

Note: this post is extracted from the article "Creating Startups with NASA Technology," published at New Space: The Journal of Space Entrepreneurship and Innovation and previously presented at the 70th International Astronautical Conference (IAC).

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