As we expand human presence into the solar system through robotic and crewed exploration, NASA is also looking at ways to encourage commercial use of space. 

In its first call for economic studies, NASA selected five research proposals that will provide economic analysis of the dynamics and opportunities inherent in space development. These studies will help inform agency strategy and possible future partnerships and opportunities for NASA and the private sector. “We had an incredible response of expertise and interest with 34 submitted proposals competing for only five grant opportunities,” Alexander MacDonald, program executive for NASA’s Emerging Space Office, said. “The world space economy generates over $300 billion a year in space related activities, and these studies will aid our understanding of the complexities and opportunities inherent in that process.”

The five studies will cover topics such as how to encourage innovation, managing risk in innovative programs, and public-private partnerships.

One study looks at one of the most exciting areas where space technology and economics combine – the use of in-situ resources (ISRU) in future exploration missions. The proposal of ‘An Integrated Economic Model for ISRU in support of a Mars Colony” by the California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in partnership with the University of New South Wales, will develop a quantitative, scenario-, and simulation-based tool to identify combinations of market variables, technical parameters, and policy levers that will enable expansion of the global economy into the solar system and return economic benefits. The utilization of ISRU is a core element of NASA’s approach to pioneering as human space exploration moves out beyond low-Earth orbit once again, and the study results have the potential to provide a valuable new perspective on the economics of long-term human habitation on Mars.

NASA’s primary goal is the human exploration of Mars, but the agency is also working to support and partner with international and U.S. private sector efforts to return to the lunar surface. NASA’s CATALYST initiative has created partnerships with three U.S. companies to support the development of lunar lander technologies and capabilities, and one of the economics research proposals selected plans to assess and analysis the potential for commercial lunar efforts. The study “Economic Assessment and Systems Analysis of an Evolvable Lunar Architecture that Leverages Commercial Space Capabilities and Public-Private Partnerships” submitted by NexGen LLC, will evaluate the potential for private-sector leadership in the development of lunar architectures to increase the affordability and sustainability of lunar operations.

An important element of economic assessment is the characterization and management of risk. The study from Resources for the Future entitled “Anchoring and Black Swans: Reconsidering Risk Aversion and the Future of Commercial Space” aims to contribute to the understanding of the role that psychological anchoring plays in risk characterization and management. The study will analysis how government and the private sector co-manage risk in other analogous areas involving new technology, national visibility, and human risk – such as civilian nuclear power, commercial aviation, and scientific research in extreme environments – and identify lessons learned that might aide NASA and the private-sector in characterizing and co-managing the risks of commercial spaceflight in the future.

“Start-Up Space” from the Tauri Group aims to provide a qualitative and quantitative study of investment trends related to space start-up companies in order to inform NASA and the public on the rapidly evolving interest and investment in space companies in Silicon Valley and the high-tech investment community. In focusing the analysis on the actions and motivations of space entrepreneurs and investors, and on the creation process of newly started space companies, the report will help all stakeholders understand the opportunities the emerging commercial space industry has generated, and those it will in the near future. Advanced space technologies are leading to new companies and to new jobs; monitoring and understanding the trends in innovative space-related start-up successes are more important than ever.

In order to better understand the process of encouraging successful innovation within NASA and its programs, the Smithsonian Institution and American University will study “Seeds of Discovery: An Economic History of Innovation with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration” that will independently investigate eight separate case studies of innovative efforts at NASA, including their costs, method of financing, and overall management structure employed. Proposed case studies range from the flight of Ariel 1 – the first international space project in history – through to the economic history of creating innovative marketplace mechanisms for activities within the International Space Station. 

Program officials selected the five proposals through a comprehensive review process. The final studies will be posted online after being completed. With the high interest and strong quality of the proposals, NASA’s Emerging Space Office expects to release the next call for economics research in May 2015. 


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