Bridging the Space Launch Divide

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While many taxpayers rightfully wonder if NASA’s commercial space launch gambit will leave the nation grounded, there is a way to seed development of commercial space launch companies without resorting to pork or corporate welfare.

The new policy, announced in February, aims to replace the soon-to-be-grounded space shuttle and its planned Constellation successor with private companies providing both cargo and crew transport to low Earth orbit. The argument goes simply that without private capital investment in launch services, NASA can’t focus its diminutive acquisition budget on the bigger things Americans can do in space, such as remote sensing and technology for, but not launches to, near-Earth asteroids.

Opponents of the plan argue that it’s foolish to set aside decades of traditional government-owned, contractor-operated space launch experience in favor of upstarts who have proved neither the financial capacity nor the engineering bench strength to be reliable or safe. Besides, they ask, what if these new companies go broke trying and the U.S. is left stranded on Earth while the European Union, Russia, China, India and Japan dominate the marketplace?

Congress has taken a nearly agonized look at these questions and has chosen a compromise that will fail to meet the needs of either camp, i.e., the traditional contractor community and the “new space” entrepreneurs. By splitting the sums, neither side will have enough money to accomplish the aim both say they share: robust, low-cost access to space. From the distance of, say, the international space station, it looks like Washington politics at its worst: take money from people who didn’t support you (large defense contractors) and give it to rich clever folk who might.

Unfortunately, NASA has fed this impression with poor timing. With an otherwise serious and eventful policy that could finally blast open the economic frontier of space for generations to come at stake, its decision to cancel the incumbent Constellation “program of record” and hand over its proceeds in subsidy fashion to a bunch of new entrepreneurs (who by the way, never asked for it) has ended in mish-mash. In the debate over the NASA budget, the question has been: “How much do we give to whom?” Of course it’s the wrong question if your purpose is to open the frontier. In a vision where tourists pay their own way, industries colonize the Moon, and scientists swing by asteroids on their merry way to Mars, there’s no room for terrestrial politics.

NASA’s role must instead be honed to act on behalf of the American people as a smart buyer and honest broker. To do so, it needs only two things:

  • An irrevocable commitment to explore specific destinations in space, subject to affordability.

An irrevocable commitment, which means a clear timetable, for achieving the nation’s space exploration goals and objectives (spelled out) will forecast the U.S. government’s demand for launch services over the next 30 years. For example, we know (or should know) how much cargo is required for the international space station and how many crew rotations must occur over the next 10 years. If the forecast is not bold enough in some years for the various competing providers, let them all come in to Washington and lobby for more missions to be put on the books, instead of fighting each other and letting gridlock win.

  • The authority to buy launch services from any qualified provider, subject to reliability.

Any qualified provider, whatever its political ancestry, can bid for missions on the books (in the forecast) and, under law, the government can make current-year deposits with qualified winning bidders. Naturally, flights that are due to occur soon — say, in two years — would be bid and won by companies that have proven launch capability. Flights further off would see maybe a dozen “new space” companies bidding, and the government would make current-year deposits with the top three or four most-qualified “best value” offers. As the launch dates approach, each year the government would conduct rebids so the competitors could refine their pricing, evidence improved reliability and safety, and win progressively larger cash deposits. Here again, if the current-year cash deposits offered are viewed as too small to interest bidders, let them all lobby for bigger deposits.

Details will need to be worked out, such as the sufficiency of the contract deposits at different points and the conduct of reliability and safety reviews. Yes, the government will lose a number of deposits it pays to companies that later fail to win the launch opportunity. But is that risk worse than Congress losing the money up-front by subsidizing the technology development of newly favored companies that have yet to launch a rocket, or that have just agreed to play along? As the roster of qualified launch suppliers grows through the bid/rebid process described here, the government eventually will just purchase rides from a standard fee schedule.

In the meantime, since President Barack Obama did propose setting aside $6 billion to seed development of commercial launch, let it be used instead to buy actual launch deposits, basing the decisions on the cost and reliability advantages proposed by the sellers, and then increasing those deposits consistent with the bidders’ improved pricing accuracy and operational maturity. Instead of the government “picking winners,” or subsidizing companies into commercial viability, any deposits lost along the way will have served to structure a market that serves the government and the public interest.

The irony of this NASA budget year is that the “new space” companies that seem to most benefit from the new policy are the most imperiled by it. If the government cannot be relied on to buy its share of rides to space and evidence its needs contractually, no banks or billionaires need apply. Taking a chunk from what once was Constellation, they know, is the kind of short-lived cannibalism that won’t last beyond an election cycle, which is, finally, why commercial space launch utterly must succeed.

 

Nick Fuhrman is an aerospace policy consultant based in Los Angeles. He previously was professional staff on the U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology and director of Georgia’s Center of Innovation for Aerospace. His e-mail is nfuhrman@usa.com.