‘The space industry is changing’ and NASA must evolve, lead administrator says

Key Points
  • NASA is moving "to orchestrating human spaceflight," instead of leading programs, spaceflight administrator Bill Gerstenmaier said Friday.
  • At the New Worlds conference in Austin, Texas, Gerstenmaier sees NASA now operating more like a venture capital firm, managing investments.
  • "Fiscal realism" is the defining principle of Gerstenmaier's vision for NASA's future.
NASA associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier speaks at the New Worlds 2017 conference in Austin, Texas.
Michael Sheetz | CNBC

A new era is dawning in space, and NASA, despite decades of tight budgets, wants to remain the industry's leader.

"The space industry is changing," Bill Gerstenmaier, the NASA associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, said Friday at the New Worlds conference in Austin, Texas.

He does not expect "to get another huge budget like the Apollo missions," and says NASA will focus on "orchestrating human spaceflight," instead of conceptualizing, funding, building and operating all on its own.

Having served in his role since 2005, Gerstenmaier told CNBC that he sees NASA now operating more akin to a venture capital firm, picking investments and helping build them up. He cited Morgan Stanley's recent report on the industry as a look into the direction space is heading.

"In the past, NASA would pick one company, give them a contract and throw money into it to ensure success," Gerstenmaier said. He wants NASA to drop the hope he believes many in the organization have: That if NASA just dreamed up the right program, then taxpayers would fund it.

"The days of getting funding that's three or four percent of GDP are long behind us," Gerstenmaier said.

The core of Gerstenmaier's vision is the principle of "fiscal realism," something he told CNBC is a different approach than those in NASA's past.

"We want to back programs that are implementable in the near-term within the power of current budgets," Gerstenmaier said.

Projects that "only do one thing" are the antithesis of Gerstenmaier's ideology. He gave the example of concepts for developing different spacecraft that fulfill multiple functions.

"While a lunar lander may need to be different than one that lands on Mars, you can develop an ascent vehicle that does both," Gerstenmaier said.

In testimony before the House Science Committee on Thursday, Gerstenmaier updated representatives on NASA's progress with its two exploration vehicles, the Space Launch System and Orion manned craft. Gerstenmaier added in his comments Friday that these are each a part of "a basic framework" for expanding human presence in space beyond low Earth orbit. That framework is "not NASA's plan" for future programs, but rather the direction NASA wants to lead the industry.

The end goal is the "need to increase the amount of people in space," Gerstenmaier said.

"The future is expanding human presence in partnership with nations, companies and innovators," Gerstenmaier added.