Op-ed | A new direction in space policy
President Trump just articulated a dramatic new direction for America’s space presence. On Dec. 11, he announced a plan to send American astronauts back to the moon — and eventually, Mars and beyond. The announcement included a call for “innovative and sustainable” collaboration with commercial companies.
The direction is an exciting one. And the call for increased collaboration is smart. America can no longer depend on government alone to get into orbit. Companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are creating new generations of launch vehicles capable of doing what only government assets could do in the past.
Of course, government is still the largest customer for space launch activity. But even that is changing. Governments across the globe must awaken to a new reality: they can now use launch and satellite capabilities built by the private sector.
This new reality underpins President Trump’s space policy. It is a policy that will put humans back on the moon to stay. Later, we will explore the far reaches of our solar system, first with robots and then with humans.
To begin this journey to the stars, the government would shift non-military or intelligence-related low Earth orbit activities to the private sector. The government will not abandon LEO. It would still be able to buy LEO services from on-orbit commercial assets and access LEO using commercial vehicles.
But the government would recognize that vehicles and satellites are now mature enough that it doesn’t need to control their development. The private sector can take the reins instead.
In the very near term, with the right policies, it will be possible to have humans live and work in space in commercially developed stations. The government simply will rent space aboard those stations rather than operate them.
Unfortunately, there are still those inside the space community who reject the idea that government money can be better spent buying space-related services than building and operating its own space assets through cost-plus contracts.
Both the Air Force and NASA have used cost-effective commercial launch services contracts for missions. Our intelligence agencies buy much of their remote sensing data from commercial companies. Most of the Defense Department’s communications network, for instance, depends on commercial satellites.
The Trump space policy would regularize all this current activity and aim to employ commercial capabilities as a first choice rather than as just another option. While it is true that certain government missions, particularly in national security, cannot be readily purchased in the private sector, many others can. And the cost effectiveness of doing so is considerable.
When we look at the potential expansion of NASA’s space exploration missions, the use of commercial assets also should be considered. Heavy-lift rockets are being developed in the private sector with the ability to go beyond LEO and into deep space.
Congress looks likely to continue to invest in the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft, two efforts it has been pursuing for more than a decade. But even SLS/Orion will have to be supplemented with other capabilities if we are going to have a robust lunar exploration program.
SLS/Orion, even after it goes into service, will fly only a few missions each decade. In those missions it will lift to orbit significant tonnage, and that special capability has elicited congressional support.
But a robust moon program will require more, such as landing capabilities and the ability to fly dozens of times per year. Luckily, the commercial sector is developing lander technology and the ability to get those landers into lunar orbit.
Assembly in orbit, a capability that the United States developed while building the International Space Station, also will prove useful. This proficiency can be used to build spacecraft that are sent in orbit in pieces aboard commercial rockets and assembled there. And, of course, SpaceX has announced its intent to build an ultra-heavy-lift rocket called BFR in the 2020s, a significant new private sector resource.
Accessing all the upcoming space potential will necessitate clear policy direction and goals. Technology is advancing rapidly, and the commercial sector is in the forefront of technology leadership with developments like reusable launch vehicles. Government, with its bureaucratic lethargy and annual appropriation delays, cannot keep up with these advances. So America cannot rely on it for our space technology advances.
Leadership in space requires vision, innovation and an ability to work at the speed of technology. A blend of national resolve, government investment and commercial inventiveness will propel the United States to the front of an expanding space race.
Those are the elements of the Trump administration’s new direction in space and that direction is straight up.
Robert Smith Walker represented Pennsylvania’s 16th congressional district from 1977 to 1997. The executive chairman of Wexler & Walker, a lobbying firm, he is on the board of directors of Space Adventures and has served as board chairman of the Space Foundation.