Making Space Commercially Relevant

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In his 1986 book, “The Reckoning,” David Halberstam summarized the defeat of American automakers at the hands of Japanese manufacturers with the wonderful phrase, “Familiarity breeds complacency.” Similarly, Zen master Suziki Roshi tells us, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

Expert complacency has the potential to kill the nascent commercial space industry, and at the International Space University’s annual symposium in December I heard numerous causes for worry.

2004 was a momentous year, including passage of the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act, and the X Prize being awarded to Scaled Composites. But there are no guarantees that small companies like SpaceX, XCOR or Armadillo Aerospace will continue to survive in an industry dominated by Boeing, Lockheed Martin and EADS. And like the early 1990 s when IBM faced challenges from upstarts like Compaq and Digital Equipment Corp., these aerospace giants may not yet understand the wide-ranging possibilities of commercial space transportation.

In this setting, how can the space community build on last year’s momentum? A clue was provided Dec. 1 at the space transportation session chaired by Patricia Grace Smith, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s associate administrator for commercial space transportation, during the ISU symposium.

In presenting “Commercial Space Transportation and the Industries it Enables: Economic Impacts and Market Development,” Ms. Smith made it clear that commercial space is not a stand-alone business. Her reasoning and vision were compelling: “If you will, please pause with me for a moment … and envision an intermodal transportation system — where air, land, sea and space all converge. Businesses — both manufacturing and service industries (hotels, restaurants, fuel providers, cleaning, tourist services) — thrive around the spaceport much as they do around today’s major airports. Routine missions to low-Earth orbit and beyond occur on an hourly basis — taking advantage of the communications, navigation and surveillance capabilities our military has to offer, and they are interwoven with a well-coordinated, real-time space and air traffic control system, ” she said in prepared remarks.

“Intermodal” is the operative word, the key to the relevancy and success of our emerging commercial space transportation industry. Sadly, yet not surprisingly, this message was completely lost on most of the speakers in this session, as evidenced by the question-and-answer session.

When I asked if their companies are considering how to make space part of intermodal transportation, the chief spacecraft engineer for SES-ASTRA answered that since the company’s clients had not asked for it, they did not see the need for it. The representatives of EADS Space Transportation and CNES Launcher Directorate responded similarly.

What a lack of vision.

And then came the reply I was hoping for, from the person I expected it from: Elon Musk, the chief executive officer of SpaceX. He responded, “If we aren’t thinking about intermodal operations, then why are we doing what we’re doing?” Yes. The agile entrepreneur from outside the industry outthinks the established players; and again we see the power of new ideas.

If the emerging commercial space sector is to fulfill its economic potential, it must be fully integrated with Earth-bound transportation. If it is going to enhance our lives as broadly as has information technology, it must similarly become a visible part of our everyday lives. Anything less ignores the global economy’s reliance on transportation and misses the best opportunity yet to enhance understanding of the commercial potential of human space activity.

Jeff Krukin is Executive Director of the Space Frontier Foundation.