From 1981 to 2011, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) operated the Space Transportation System, commonly known as the Space Shuttle Program (Shuttle), with the world's first reusable spacecraft to carry humans into orbit. It transported satellites into space and serviced them, carried scientific experiments, and was used to build the International Space Station (ISS) and later carry astronauts to and from the station. In 2004, it was announced that the Shuttle would be retired, and 2010 was established as the retirement date.
A year later in 2005, NASA was directed to "establish a program to develop a sustained human presence on the Moon, including a robust precursor program, to promote exploration, science, commerce, and United States preeminence in space, and as a stepping-stone to future exploration of Mars and other destinations." This evolving program was referred to later as the Constellation program (CxP).
Due to a projected five-or-more year gap between the end of Shuttle and full production of CxP, NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate approached the Bureau of Industry and Security's (BIS) Office of Technology Evaluation (OTE) in late 2009 to conduct an assessment on the ability of NASA's Shuttle-related human space flight (HSF) supply chain to maintain critical capabilities during the gap period. Unexpectedly, NASA was directed in early 2010 to "transition" from CxP to deep-space exploration (bypassing the Moon), and CxP-related funding was reduced to a few core components for deep-space projects, while funding for ISS was extended through 2020. The OTE assessment was therefore modified to include these changing factors.
NASA and OTE designed a survey to gather in-depth information on all parts of NASA's human space flight (HSF) supply chain and its ability to operate during the anticipated procurement gap, now between Shuttle/CxP and future deep-space exploration. OTE collected information covering 2007-2010 from 536 companies identified by NASA as Shuttle, CxP, and ISS program suppliers.
The Shuttle retirement and CxP transition will impact future NASA HSF programs through a loss of unique skills, capabilities, products, and services by select suppliers. The assessment highlights and prioritizes immediate areas of concern for NASA, with focus on the 150 survey respondents that identified themselves as dependent on NASA. Within the group of 150 NASA- dependent companies, the 46 NASA-dependent companies that reported negative net profit margins for at least one year from 2007-2010 should be given particular attention. Without continued business opportunities, these companies have the highest potential of shutting down. Ongoing efforts to develop a deep-space exploration capsule and heavy-lift rocket capability are important first steps to maintaining capabilities, and should be viewed as the building blocks to spur a sustainable HSF supply chain.
The assessment also reveals many areas of opportunity for future NASA action, including: increasing communication and outreach with the HSF supply chain; coordinating efforts with regional, state, local, educational, and non-profit organizations and institutions; working with other U.S. Government agencies to address interdependency issues, find commonalities, and leverage mutual interests to support the industrial base; and directing more Federal Government research and development funds to smaller companies as well as diversifying the number of companies conducting NASA-related research and development.
For many NASA HSF suppliers, participating in NASA HSF programs and space missions is a point of national pride and enthusiasm. In fact, the vast majority of surveyed companies were willing to support future NASA HSF programs, despite the inconsistency of demand. Rapid action by NASA, in conjunction with other federal and state organizations, will ensure these companies and their skills and capabilities will be there when needed for the next great U.S. milestone into space.