Commercial Spaceflight is a Must for the Nation

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“It is difficult to prophesize, especially about the future.”

This Chinese proverb may be accurate in some cases; however, one element that has become very clear is that the future will include commercial spaceflight of cargo and crew.

A recent CNN Politics “Cafferty File” solicitation asked the question: “Should the U.S. Space Program be a priority during a budget crisis?” A look at the responses indicates that there is strong pride in our space program, that there is an appreciation of the direct and sometimes intangible benefits of the program, but also that there is a frustration with perceived inefficiencies of large, government-led programs whose resources should be realigned to higher-priority, near-term and personal, economic concerns.

The 48 pages of more than 150 responses ranged from “yes” to “no” to “only if you include Congressional Leadership as cargo.” There were more pro (fund) responses than con (do not fund). Pro respondents focused on the quality of life enhancements and benefits derived from the great work NASA has done, with examples provided to include satellite communications, radiation tolerant robotics, material and medical technologies, and employment. It was extremely satisfying to see an appreciation and understanding of the great advances attributed to our investments in science and technology in general, and NASA specifically.

The ‘do not fund’ responses presented compelling examples of higher-priority requirements such as a recently closed critical-access hospital, or the loss of employment. The essential argument presented was: Why spend money on a space program when we should be focusing on more immediate, quality-of-life issues? Unfortunately, the leading question was presented as an either/or solution and did not provide the trade-off between the two extremes.

These are legitimate concerns that bear addressing. The small size of our space budget, however, would not provide enough personal impact and, in fact, removal of space funding would place even more of our highly skilled citizens at risk. A robust commercial space industry would continue the development of key technologies that have provided significant benefit to all of us, and would also address the concerns of those who are looking for a new, more efficient return on investments.

The key ingredient to our economic growth, enhanced competitiveness, and sustained quality of life has been our ability to extract and facilitate the benefits of innovation; innovation not equated solely with breakthrough products, but more importantly, process innovation and product adaptation innovation (The Economist, May 7, 2011). U.S. leadership and commercial innovation have been the vital elements driving our growth and prosperity. This has allowed us to emerge as the global leader in technology development, spawning competitive services, jobs and industries.

The Obama administration’s support of commercial spaceflight is creating an environment capable of capturing and maturing the benefits from commercial innovation. NASA is leveraging programs, such as commercial crew development, to engage the wide scope of our private industry, from well established and successful traditional companies to the exciting emerging new entrants. The use of fixed-price, competitive, pay-for-performance based contracting has encouraged the merging of experience and innovation. This public-private partnership will develop a space transportation system with services available for both commercial and government customers. This will provide for the continued sustainment of our global leadership in space and assure safe, reliable and affordable U.S. controlled and operated access to/from low Earth orbit and the international space station.

These benefits have been highlighted in a recent NASA “Commercial Market Assessment for Crew and Cargo Systems.” Using the Falcon-9 as an example, the NASA assessment predicted the development cost of the launch vehicle using a traditional NASA approach, a commercial development approach, and compared these to the publicly shared actual costs. The results show a striking reduction in development costs from the traditional to the commercial approach and an additional significant reduction to the actual cost recorded.

With the upcoming retirement of the space shuttle, it is time to look to our commercial industry to provide safe and affordable crew and cargo delivery.

We must institutionalize the industry’s experience, along with NASA’s, and include industry’s best processes and product innovation, into a robust space program. The administration’s endorsement, support, and funding of commercial crew/cargo, suborbital commercial educational flight opportunities, and commercial technology development, is headed in the right direction. It is commendable but needs to continue and needs to be resourced appropriately.

With a robust commercial spaceflight industrial base, in partnership with government, we will rapidly see new operational capabilities such as autonomous assembly, propellant depots, commercial laboratories and habitats.

Technologies will mature allowing movement into the solar system, and critical/transformational technologies will be validated and become commonplace, influencing travel, entertainment and employment. Orbital vehicles will travel to the international space station, commercial space habitats, and other future destinations, and suborbital spacecraft will launch with unprecedented frequency from spaceports across the nation carrying scientists, private spaceflight participants and educators. This will provide platforms for science, research and education opportunities at revolutionary low costs.

And perhaps most importantly, a vibrant commercial spaceflight industry would directly address Norm Augustine’s warning in “A Race to the Bottom” (Aviation Week & Space Technology, Aug. 24, 2009). A strong industry will provide the challenge, the privilege and the reason for our college students to concentrate in the fields of science, technology, and engineering. … If we provide that challenge.

A friend of mine, the distinguished explorer and astronaut John Grunsfeld, pointed out to me one day while preparing to be a witness for the House Science Committee, the inscription on the committee room wall.

“For I dipped into the future, far as human eye could see; saw the vision of new worlds and all the wonder that would be” — Lord Alfred Tennyson.

The commercial spaceflight industry is ready to pick up more of the load so that NASA can concentrate on what they do best: improve life here, find life beyond our Earth and extend our presence into the solar system. The commercial spaceflight industry will continue to be a key agent in this exciting partnership to continue our technological economic, social, and intellectual growth. It is too important not to. It is a must! Audentes Fortuna Juvat.

 

Retired U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Craig Steidle is president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.