A Powerful Case for Commercial Space
Already in this new century, three presidential commissions have examined the U.S. space program and have agreed. The case for commercial space is very strong. All three did not start out with a bias toward greater use of commercial space assets, but all three came to the conclusion that the private sector must become a prominent player in our space future. The Walker commission, the Aldridge commission and the Augustine commission each discovered independently that a robust space industry requires greater reliance on nongovernment investment and entrepreneurial vision.
Despite this overwhelming consensus among experts chosen to provide focus on where our space ambitions should take us, the plan of President Barack Obama’s administration for utilizing greater commercial assets in the civilian space arena engendered controversy on Capitol Hill when it was announced. The opposition to the new NASA direction claimed that abandoning “old space” would lead to an incapacity for exercising space leadership.
Yet the evidence compiled by each of the three expert commissions says just the opposite of the Capitol Hill conclusion. Our future leadership in space will depend on our ability to integrate the proven capabilities of the commercial sector into our national space objectives, civilian and military.
The President’s Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry, which I chaired in 2001-2002, recommended that we adopt a substantive vision for our national goals in space that we called the space imperative. The space section of that report was authored largely by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Buzz Aldrin. While the need for a vision was primary, we recognized that in both our civilian and military space programs, a fundamental need existed for expansion of commercial space activity and that the government and the investment community needed to be more sensitive to the commercial opportunities available in the 21st century.
When President George W. Bush presented the country with a vision for going back to the Moon and then on to Mars, he asked the President’s Commission on Moon, Mars, and Beyond, headed by former Air Force Secretary Pete Aldridge, to specify how the vision he had put forward could be achieved within a spending profile that was realistic. The Aldridge commission report made it clear that commercial space would have to play a major role in an achievable and fiscally sound program. In fact, the recommendation was that NASA restructure itself around the new vision embracing commercial assets. In particular, we recommended that low Earth orbit (LEO) become a commercial zone with lifts to LEO provided exclusively on commercial vehicles.
The Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, headed by Norm Augustine, was asked by President Obama to give him an unvarnished view of the American civilian space program. What the Augustine commission found was an agency that had reached out to some degree to the commercial space vendors but was primarily embarked on a big, new program. Constellation was visionary and challenging, but had become fiscally unsustainable. Furthermore, without more focus on developing our commercial launch capabilities, it appeared likely we would be dependent on Russian lift for many years to come. And that reality was what faced the Obama team in deciding on a new direction.
Not surprisingly, NASA turned to concepts developed by the Augustine commissioners that tracked previous recommendations, namely more reliance on commercial space providers. But they also had to cancel major elements of the Constellation program, an unpopular decision with the traditional NASA supporters on Capitol Hill. Contractors, NASA centers and astronaut heroes came forward to criticize the plan, and because commercial space proposals now looked like competition for “old space” dollars, the criticism extended to private-sector initiatives. The commercial launch industry, in particular, was said to be too untested to be trusted with future delivery of cargo and crew to the international space station, the principal role that NASA envisioned for the private companies.
But as the debate evolved, the commercial alternative looked better and better. While Congress created its own plan for NASA’s future that included some funding for commercial space, its primary focus was a demand that NASA build a new heavy-lift rocket that NASA doubts can be completed on the timeline specified in the law. Moreover, the cost of that vehicle is thought to be quite high, perhaps unaffordably high. Meantime one commercial firm, Space Exploration Technologies (), placed its Dragon capsule in orbit and brought it safely back to Earth, and did so at costs far below those typical of orbital projects. Other space companies, such as Sierra Nevada, Orbital Sciences and Boeing, are in the process of creating their own capable vehicles.
The Russians are giving us an excellent view of what to expect once the shuttle has been retired and they are the exclusive transport to the space station. Just recently they announced a new price increase from $56 million to $63 million per astronaut. Once American commercial launch providers have qualified their vehicles for crew delivery, the cost is thought to be on the order of $20 million per astronaut. And their anticipated timetable for achieving that capability is considerably shorter than the NASA heavy-lift vehicle, a rocket that would not really be very useful for low orbit activity anyway. So, for those in the Congress who worry about our reliance on the Russians for space station transport, the answer is more investment in the commercial option.
What needs to be realized is that it is not only the civilian space programs that benefit from the growth of a commercial space industry. Our military needs also can be en
hanced by competition. Fixed-price contracts for delivery of services can replace cost-plus contracts. Payloads hosted on commercial satellites can give the Pentagon lower-cost options for many of its missions. As launch costs come down because of the efficiencies that commercial providers bring to the market, traditional contractors will have to find ways to lower their costs as well. And vigorous competition among a wide range of providers, launch and satellite, will mean a broader industry with the capacity to contribute more to the national economy and the national defense.
For those who worry about our ability to compete internationally in the space arena, the commercial option offers much hope. We already are beginning to see the cost curve favor American launchers over their foreign competition, including the Chinese. When we have affordable launch, the result will be a better business climate for our satellite manufacturers. That, in turn, will lead to the survival of third-, fourth- and fifth-tier industrial suppliers, meaning less need to purchase components offshore.
What we know after 50 years of space history is that each time we have seen technology mature to the point the investors and entrepreneurs can see real business potential, the role of space in our lives has expanded and the benefits to our economy and our national security have been enhanced. Communication, GPS and remote sensing have all contributed significantly to our national well-being and have become more valuable the longer they have been market-driven.
Today, commercial space entrepreneurs appear to have a better grasp of the complex formula of resources, risk, technology, vision and imagination that define space leadership than do government bureaucracies. Tapping that asset will carry us forward to remarkable new adventures and discoveries.
Robert S. Walker is former chairman of the President’s Commission on the Future of Aerospace and former chairman of the U.S. House Science Committee. He is currently executive chairman of the Washington lobbying firm Wexler & Walker Public Policy Associates.