Elliot Pulham, Chief Executive, Space Foundation
When the Space Foundation was established in 1983, its primary mission was to act as a liaison between U.S. Air Force Space Command, which was stood up the year before in Colorado Springs, Colo., and the public.
Today the nonprofit organization has 106 corporate members, a broad focus that includes global civil space activities and a mission that ranges from education to research and analysis to advocacy. The foundation also organizes one of the space industry’s premier conferences: the National Space Symposium, held each year in Colorado Springs.
Elliot Pulham, who took the helm of the Colorado Springs-based foundation in 2001, said today’s membership is primarily U.S. companies but that the organization is looking to become more global to better reflect the nature of the space enterprise. He says the United States should be finding ways to work more closely with India and China.
Often outspoken, Pulham is among the skeptics of U.S. President Barack Obama’s plan to rely on the emerging commercial spaceflight industry to transport U.S. astronauts to and from the international space station.
He spoke recently with Space News Editor Warren Ferster.
What’s your primary mission?
We are primarily an educational organization. But it’s with a capital “E.” We provide educational opportunities for industry, we have a formal education program that works with teachers and students from prekindergarten through college, and we have a research and analysis enterprise that informs our policy work, informs our programming and activities that we do for the industry, and informs what we do in education. So we really are about educating, keeping industry informed, having opportunities for industry to get together and share information, keeping policymakers informed, keeping teachers and students prepared with relevant curriculum that they’re excited about.
Describe your efforts to educate U.S. lawmakers on space industry issues.
Well, it’s a combination of basic education and directed education for the policymakers. We do “Space 101” briefings whenever there is an election and Congress has new members, and they may end up on space committees and not know that the pointy end goes up and fire comes out the bottom. We also publish a very basic guide that they can use, and then of course we put The Space Report in the hands of all the people who are really seriously addressing the space issues. We also have partnered with George Mason University from time to time to put on a two- or three-day program that’s more intense for people in government, and we frequently will do issues-focused forums up on Capitol Hill, where, say, there’s some issue coming around and we’ll get together three or four experts from different parts of the industry who have differing views and put on a panel discussion and air those issues out so that the staff and members can really sink their teeth into those issues.
What is your position on the new U.S. National Space Policy?
The policy is a mixed bag; it’s mostly good stuff. The approach to export reform is so long overdue, and what’s gratifying about that is we’re seeing the actions that follow up what the policy says. We’ve still got a distance to go, but I’m more optimistic about exports than I’ve been in 12 years. The international collaboration piece is important; I don’t think it goes far enough. One of the things that I think is a concern, and it’s very subtle, but the previous U.S. policy talked at several points about leadership and the current policy, leadership doesn’t even appear in it. I think that’s a fundamental flaw that we need to fix. Even though the rest of the world is rapidly evolving their own space capabilities, people still look to the United States to lead joint efforts.
You’ve been critical of the policy as it relates to NASA. Are you concerned primarily with plans to outsource crew transport to the space station, or is it that there seems to be no exploration destination beyond low Earth orbit?
It’s all of the above. The desire to nurture a robust commercial space transportation industry is absolutely laudable and appropriate and good, and we strongly support it. That being said, you can’t go down to the store and buy rockets off the shelf right now. And the so-called commercial entries are essentially being subsidized by NASA as would be the case in any development program with Boeing or Lockheed Martin — it just happens they picked Orbital Sciences and Space Exploration Technologies. So you’re betting that stuff that’s not working yet is going to work, and you’ve made a decision that you’re comfortable with the United States not having a national means of putting humans in space. I think that’s a fundamental flaw. I think that for purposes of space exploration, the U.S. should always have a national means of putting humans into space and bringing them back.
Say what you will about Constellation and Orion — and I’m not sure I feel strongly about it one way or the other — we’ve got to get out of the habit of throwing away $10 billion worth of investment every time we change administrations. As a nation we need to have a strategy for space exploration that says exploration is important for all of these reasons and therefore we’re going to do all of these things. And the lack of a concrete goal, concrete timetable, concrete destination for exploration was also something that we saw as very alarming because you can throw a lot of money at technology investment and create a lot of fun little gadget shops where people are building things that are cool, but if it’s not going to come together and do something then what’s the point?
How do you view the 2010 NASA Authorization Act that directs the agency to develop a heavy-lift rocket and a multipurpose crew vehicle and also supports commercial spaceflight?
Generally, I have a very favorable opinion of that authorization bill, and not the least of reasons being it really demonstrated once again that space is a bipartisan, bicameral issue and concern. The NASA program has always been supported strongly by both parties, and for both parties to come together and say, “Houston, we’ve got a problem, we’ve got to come together and fix this,” I think is a huge victory. The proof will be in how it is implemented so it’s going to be a little bit of wait and see.
Should the United States be working more closely with India?
India’s an ally and a democratic government with a good space program, and they’re coming on strong. We really should be working with them, and I think we will be. China’s another example. China’s a very interesting conundrum for a lot of our policy people. If you look back at the role Apollo-Soyuz and Shuttle-Mir played in building relations with first the Soviet Union and then Russia, and then you look at what the Chinese are doing, there’s a real strong case to be made that we should be working with them and partnering with them, with all the same kinds of safeguards that we did in the previously named programs. But collaboration seems to get caught up in this overall strategy business. We still don’t know what the overall engagement plan is so we can’t convince anyone that we need to move on this piece of it.
What kind of access were you given during your visit to China last year?
They were incredibly transparent. We basically could go anywhere we wanted to, and I think in the entire eight days we were there, there was only one building they didn’t allow us to take pictures in. That was different from some of our domestic experiences. I’ve done plenty of tours of places like Vandenberg Air Force Base, Johnson Space Center and Kennedy Space Center, and they were much more controlled environments and much more particular about keeping you where you are than the Chinese were.
What would it take to bring China into the international space station program?
It’s harder than it needs to be to invite China to participate. But you have 16 nations involved in the space station and they are bound by agreements and treaties that go back to the 1990s, and getting that many nations to come to an agreement on what the formula would be for bringing the Chinese onboard would be very difficult.
The administration of then-U.S. President Bill Clinton managed to bring Russia onboard.
There were people in the Clinton administration who really wanted to make that happen, and so they did. I think that there are not enough people and certainly not at high enough levels within the Obama administration who really feel passionately about space. It’s hard to find champions. So unless there’s some political opportunity that presents itself, has benefit to the administration, I don’t see them stepping up to this. It’s not that I don’t see them ever stepping up to this, but I haven’t seen it yet.
Should an asteroid be the next deep-space destination for human explorers?
These things are more difficult to do than we think. I think we take for granted that because we were able to get to the Moon with Apollo that we can easily replicate that. That corporate memory has really been lost. There are not a lot of people around anymore who knew how to do that, not many people who have done that. So I think before we go pushing off towards asteroids and Mars, we need to recut our teeth on the Moon and feel like we’ve got our game back before we start sending people way out, far from the planet.