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Public-Private Partnerships Redefining U.S. Space Industry

March 27, 2014

In response to declining appropriations and the termination of the Space Shuttle program, NASA has had to re-orient its approach to commercial partnerships. Over the past decade, NASA has turned to private partnerships to further the agency’s goals of space research and exploration. This same impulse has driven NASA to create regional partnerships to cultivate private space industry clusters and drive the development of the Commercial Crew program, which is highlighted as a core component of the agency’s FY15 budget proposal. These efforts have changed NASA’s role in regional, high-tech economic development from that of a research laboratory to a direct partner.

The U.S. private space industry has expanded rapidly in recent years, according the Department of Commerce’s recent U.S. Space Industry Deep Dive report. Now over 80 percent of U.S. states participate in the U.S. space industry supply chain. While NASA funding and commercial space development has seen little or no change in the past decade, U.S. government purchase of private space company services increased by $5 billion from 2011-2012.

A large part of the growth of the industry can be attributed to NASA’s Commercial Crew program. In response to the termination of the U.S. Space Shuttle program in 2011, NASA has sought to promote private space industry growth in hopes of partnering with U.S.-based private space companies to launch manned space exploration and deliver cargo to the International Space Station. U.S.-based company SpaceX recently conducted the first private cargo mission to the ISS and currently is developing a reusable rocket booster to radically reduce the costs of space flight, according to MIT Technology Review.

NASA is now targeting entrepreneurship in the U.S. space industry by launching its Collaborations for Commercial Space Capabilities Initiative. This month the agency announced plans to solicit proposals to forge unfunded partnerships with private companies to develop and commercialize new space technologies. The initiative will connect NASA researchers and staff directly with companies to provide technical expertise, data, and access to licensed technologies for projects that support the growth of space industry clusters and have the potential to advance innovations in space exploration and scientific research.

The agency also is attempting to foster the growth of private space industry clusters by partnering with cities and regions to support small business growth and create jobs through tech commercialization. The New Economy Initiative of Southeast Michigan (NEI) is supporting the development of a space industry cluster in Detroit by launching the SME Technology Interchange, a forum that brings together regional stakeholders from academia, industry, and the federal government to develop a framework for space industry growth and support. As an initial program test, NASA is working with NEI stakeholders on the co-development, collaboration, and commercialization of 25 agency-licensed technologies.

Another NASA effort to foster regional partnerships has been launched around the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. A pilot program for the Obama administration’s Strong Cities, Strong Communities Initiative has received an award from the Federal Laboratory Consortium for Technology Transfer for a manufacturing collaborative established between NASA researchers and regional economic development organizations.

NASA has signaled the desire to continue to deepen partnerships with the private space industry and will continue to broaden its outreach to regional economic development organizations to strengthen the research, development and commercialization of space technologies that can advance U.S. space exploration.


Michigan, Ohioaerospace, federal agency, nasa