Commercial Crew Needs Commercial Help

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It is easy to make the case that Elon Musk, founder and “chief designer” of Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), has given enough to the cause of spaceflight.

His company has successfully developed two rockets and a capsule that has returned to Earth from orbit and is designed to return from the Moon and beyond. SpaceX received its share of government help, and after 10 years and counting, progress has been much slower than anyone would have wished. Nonetheless, these achievements are real and primarily Musk’s. They would not have happened without his initiative, his perseverance in the face of seemingly endless delays and repeated early launch failures, and the investment of a great deal of his own money.

If SpaceX and the other companies competing for commercial crew contracts with NASA are to succeed in creating a commercial transportation industry to low Earth orbit, they will almost certainly need to invest a lot more.

A surprising cast of enemies, often powerful Republican legislators, have queued up to oppose the commercial crew contracts. Increasingly, opponents argue against even modest government investment in the commercial transport of astronauts to the international space station. They succeeded in cutting more than half of President Barack Obama’s budget request for this year, resulting in at least one year’s additional delay to the program. Now they argue that commercial crew is so tardy that, even assuming no further delays, the currently approved life of the international space station will expire only three years after the first commercial flight. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) has gone so far as to suggest raiding the commercial crew budget and removing competition from the program in order to restore Mars science funding.

These are decidedly odd positions for conservative Republicans. (A better case could be made for using Mars funds to accelerate commercial crew and cargo, which has at least a chance of lowering the cost of spaceflight for everyone, Mars scientists included.) To Rep. Wolf, at least, commercial crew contracts seem to have become little more than a pool of dollars to bail out unrelated NASA projects.

The reasons for this enmity are not hard to find. The Obama administration’s original proposal amounted to replacing billions of dollars in Constellation contracts to return astronauts to the Moon, often in congressional districts highly dependent on NASA dollars, with hundreds of millions of dollars in support of relatively small private companies mostly headquartered elsewhere.

The proposal was bound to ruffle feathers even if it had been carefully planned and presented. That it was not is no excuse for the naked hypocrisy of lawmakers who argue in favor of privatizing health care for the elderly and poor while simultaneously fighting tooth and nail for a hugely expensive and essentially socialist space program.

It is important to note that not all the jobs are leaving traditionally space-oriented congressional districts. Boeing, which to its great credit is competing for commercial crew contracts in addition to its work on the Space Launch System, established its commercial crew program office in Florida and plans to utilize retired space shuttle infrastructure. California’s SpaceX has chosen to place major facilities in both Texas and Florida. SpaceX, already the nation’s largest producer of rocket engines, continues to rack up commercial sales that in the past would have gone to Europe’s Ariane or Russia’s Proton rockets. If they successfully deliver on those contracts, their employment rolls will expand accordingly.

Yet two self-described “free market” Republicans from Texas (Rep. Ralph Hall and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who frequently quotes Adam Smith) and a conservative Florida Democrat (Sen. Bill Nelson) have led the charge to severely restrict funding for these activities. Though Nelson lately seems to be moderating his stance, these lawmakers want the money to go to Orion and the Space Launch System, traditional government developments that Congress saved from the ashes of Constellation.

On the other side of the fence, “new space” advocates have their own inconsistencies. It is all too easy to ridicule a “commercial” project to deliver astronauts to the international space station that wants $830 million next year from taxpayers. NASA is seeking this before the last service it subsidized — cargo to the space station — has delivered so much as a kilogram. That may change if SpaceX’s first cargo delivery, currently scheduled for May, is successful.

If NASA is to keep its goal of supporting a minimum of two providers, the “new space” industry will have to put more of what former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin liked to call its “skin” on the table.

When seeking commercial crew contracts, SpaceX claims its Dragon cargo capsule was developed with astronauts in mind and now requires little more than an escape system already under development. If its product really is almost astronaut-ready, why wait for government handouts that stretch development to 2017? SpaceX could fly as soon as practical and safe, and claim the $65 million NASA now pays the Russians for every astronaut they orbit. Since Dragon can hold seven astronauts, SpaceX is passing up potential revenue of up to $455 million per flight — as much in one mission as the company could expect in NASA subsidies. Likewise, Boeing’s bid is developmentally conservative and has the huge resources of the parent company behind it. Why wait for government money to claim a market that already exists?

The other two contenders, Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada, probably are not as close to flight, appear to be developing more challenging systems, and likely have fewer resources — which should give them the greater claim to receive government help.

If the two leading contenders behaved as the commercial vendors they claim to be, NASA could put their money into actual contracts to deliver astronauts — and possibly have enough left over to restore Mars science.

The market for space station crew delivery is predictable and real. It is also finite. The longer the U.S. Congress, NASA and the commercial crew companies squabble and delay, the more this limited market will go to Russia, or disappear altogether when the space station is retired.

Is “new space” really new, or is it traditional government contracting under a different name and slightly different rules? If commercial competition is good for the rest of the economy, why not for space transportation?

If the United States is to extend the nation’s storied history of space exploration and commerce into the future, both sides need to act on what they claim to believe.

 

Donald F. Robertson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. He is a small investor in some of the companies building commercial rockets and supplying components for them. See www.DonaldFRobertson.com for further examples of his work.