The Pulse Explores: The New (Air) Space Race & FY18 NASA Spending Trends

 

  • Senate passage of the House Resolution (H.Con.Res.71) FY18 budget included a budget authority for General Science, Space, and Technology at $32.5T and outlay (aka spending funds) at $31.9T in FY18 and these numbers only increase with the passage of each year

  • H.R.2810 NDAA FY18 puts significant measures in place for Air and Space Activities to include the modification of the policy of the U.S. with respect to classification of space as a combat domain and aerospace vehicle technologies

  • On October 27th President Trump tapped former NASA Administrator, Mr. Michael Griffin, to be the Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics

  • On October 30th the U.S. Air Force announced a massive funding increase for the SpaceX program to the tune of $40.77M to assist in the development and testing of the Raptor engine (aka what is going to send us to Mars!)


This Administration has found itself falling victim to circular reasoning. On one hand, it has been very clear about gutting federal spending – but on the other hand, it desperately wants to further explore and harness the power of “the final frontier.”  They have been direct about their interest in boosting the private sector’s investment in American spaceflight, but have nonetheless found that the majority of ventures are still born from NASA contracts.

So how does this Administration have its dehydrated space cake and eat it too? Defense Spending.

With Vice President Pence at the helm of the National Space Council, the (potential passage) of H.R.2810 NDAA FY18, and a new FY18 budget (or C.R.) - the U.S. has been making the push to prioritize and commoditize space.

Space is the instinctual name of the game when it comes to working with NASA, and it is the hot topic of industry right now. However, according to recent FY17 GovCon spending trends and the Congressional FY18 budget resolution, there is additional opportunity for work outside of space flights, space technology, and science.

It’s easy to forget about the second “A” in the acronym (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) but this buzzword should be in the forefront of the Government Contractors mind. Yes, we know, “America is going to lead in space once again” (whatever that means), but advancements in technology and an increase in opportunities for air navigation will start to have ramifications on our everyday lives in the next decade or two that could lead to work (and revenue!) in areas that are out of this world.

According to The Planetary Society’ analysis of NASA’s new human spaceflight directive, “it's fair to say that at least 50 percent of NASA's budget is already focused on human spaceflight activities. The remaining budget is divided between science (30 percent), aeronautics (3 percent), and space technology (3 percent), with the rest going to related overhead, salaries, and maintenance.”

By our calculation, that means there is approximately $315M going towards developments in aeronautics.

If you glanced at our October 26 Industry Expose’, you might have noticed an active bid called Safety and Mission Assurance (Solicitation No.: 80ARC018R0006) to support NASA Ames Research Center. Their core areas of expertise and operations include:

  • Entry Systems: Safely delivering spacecraft to Earth and other celestial bodies

  • Supercomputing: Enabling NASA’s advanced modeling and simulation

  • NextGen Air Transportation: Transforming the way we fly

  • Airborne Science: Examining our own world & beyond from the sky

  • Low-cost Missions: Enabling high-value science to low Earth orbit & the moon

  • Biology and Astrobiology: Understanding life on Earth - and in space

  • Exoplanets: Finding worlds beyond our own

  • Autonomy and Robotics: Complementing humans in space

  • Lunar Science: Rediscovering our moon

  • Human Factors: Advancing human-technology interaction for NASA missions

  • Wind Tunnels: Testing on the ground before you take to the sky

What stood out to you on that list? To us – it’s that third bullet, “NextGen Air Transportation: Transforming the Way We Fly.”

According to (loud) industry, whispers – and not so subtle leadership moves – NASA is trying to stay a leader in this field. In the past, air transportation has been largely about identifying the safest flight patterns around bad weather and other aircrafts. NASA has worked with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other commercial airlines to develop algorithms and big data to identify operational patterns, which in turn could improve flight path efficiency.

It is also no secret that FAA is keen on big data possibilities: “Accommodating higher volumes of these operations safely and effectively is what NASA is working on within its Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) research program. This effort defines the near and long-term vision of UAS operations anticipating there will be a significant number of flights at all altitudes in the future.”

But let’s be honest - this isn’t just about traditional high-altitude travel as proven by President Trump’s E.O that eased the path for deliveries by drone:

“[President] Trump directed the Transportation Department to create a test program and invite proposals submitted by partnerships between drone operators and local, state or tribal governments. The department will pick at least five partnerships to go forward with tests, which would occur in designated zones. The zones could cover flights up to 200 feet above ground, but the Transportation Department could approve testing up to 400 feet. Test results could also help with a low-flying unmanned aircraft air traffic management system being developed separately by NASA.”

To put this in perspective for those of us who have no sense of spatial reasoning, 400 feet is above buildings, but below traditional airspace.

So what is our point? Well, it’s time to start thinking up solutions to problems that don’t exist yet.  

Air and ground traffic management will change once this “low-altitude airspace” starts being utilized. According to NASA’s website: “Currently, there is no established infrastructure to enable and safely manage the widespread use of low-altitude airspace and UAS operations, regardless of the type of UAS. A UAS traffic management (UTM) system for low-altitude airspace may be needed, perhaps leveraging concepts from the system of roads, lanes, stop signs, rules and lights that govern vehicles on the ground today, whether the vehicles are driven by humans or are automated.”

Think about the implications of that statement for a moment.

  • An entire infrastructure will need to be built, managed, and regulated.

  • Our GPS mapping systems will have to become 3D to account for up and down in addition to our usual cardinal directions.

  • The security of buildings will need to change to secure against entry at higher elevations.

  • All this and more will lead to commercial opportunities that have otherwise felt like science fiction.

NASA, however, is a notoriously difficult agency to break into as a contractor. With that in mind, our intelligence says there are a few things to keep in mind when bidding on a contract for NASA:

  • Be prepared to deliver excellence. It is their opinion that you as a contractor are serving the government and you should be proud of that fact.

  • There is a strong safety culture at NASA and that is how they manage their risks. Be safety conscious.

  • When you work with NASA, any information sharing should be data-driven. Leave the anecdotal storytelling at home.

  • There absolutely is a need for more safeguards for data sharing and increased cybersecurity. Stay as protective as possible.

  • Like any agency, NASA needs you to optimize their IT budget, but that should not stop you from innovating. For example, cybersecurity is changing to recognize anomalous behaviors—so be at the forefront of innovation in areas that interest NASA.

  • Lastly, strive to inspire the people on the programs to be better, professionally and personally, and not just compliant. Big thumbs up for GovCon’s bidding with intent