In recent months there has been considerable debate as to whether or not NASA should rely on commercial companies to carry astronauts to and from the international space station.

There is a lot at stake.

The Constellation program — despite the best efforts of the many gifted and dedicated individuals working on it — is billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule, which has put us in the position of relying on Russia to carry American astronauts after the space shuttle retires next year through at least 2017.

But instead of a debate over practical needs, scientific results and budgetary concerns, the focus has largely been on fringe issues.

Consider the arguments against President Barack Obama’s new vision for NASA.

Opponents repeatedly ask whether or not there is a “commercial market” for human spaceflight. It is an interesting question, but it’s not crucial to determining the viability of NASA’s commercial crew program.

We have come beyond the days when we were in a race to get a man on the Moon, where the technology had to be invented to achieve that goal. Notwithstanding, 75 percent of the cost of launching astronauts today still goes to pay for the launch itself — the rocket that propels a spacecraft into orbit.

Critics will point to studies that show “space tourism” is not profitable. But serious launch companies aren’t relying on space tourism to sustain their launch services businesses — think Boeing and Lockheed’s United Launch Alliance (ULA), Orbital Sciences and Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX). They are already profitable by serving existing business and government customers, carrying satellites to orbit and carrying cargo to and from the international space station (ISS).

Some of the critics of the Obama administration’s proposal have tried to draw comparisons to the way Iridium, provider of satellite telephones, originally failed when the market it had been counting on never materialized. That comparison does not hold, however; these launch service providers already have a strong customer base for launch services. (Iridium itself was ultimately successful when government demand for satellite phones grew and it was in a position to fill that need.)

NASA may end up being the largest customer for companies that ultimately launch manned missions to low Earth orbit, but that doesn’t mean they can’t take advantage of the same free-market principles that work for businesses. NASA relies on private companies to build the vehicles that carry crew today. Competition would allow the agency to choose from among these and other providers, but in a way that creates incentives for innovation, improved quality, faster results and lower costs.

Lower costs also will come from sharing fixed costs. Under Constellation, one division of NASA (the Exploration Space Mission Directorate) is left paying 100 percent of the development and operations and maintenance cost because vehicles such as the Ares 1 rocket were designed and manufactured on a cost-plus basis for just one customer.

In 2005, when the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program was announced, then-NASA Administrator Mike Griffin pointed out, “I don’t go and buy a car or an airplane or pretty much anything else on the basis of why don’t you build me this car and tell me how much it costs when you’re done. That’s not the way to do things.”

Today, with a stable of proven commercially developed launch vehicles that can be modified to become capable of carrying astronauts to the ISS, NASA clearly would pay less to use the same rockets currently being used by many businesses and the rest of the U.S. government (including the Department of Defense and NASA’s Science Directorate) because it would allow the agency to spread fixed costs over a much larger number of customers.

And with those cost-savings, NASA could focus its limited resources on accelerating exploration efforts that go beyond low Earth orbit.

As Griffin said in a speech in 2005, “Utilizing the market offered by the international space station’s requirements for cargo and crew will spur true competition in the private sector, will result in savings that can be applied elsewhere in the program, and will promote further commercial opportunities in the aerospace sector.”

That is the vision of NASA: To go and do the great things no one else will. To push the boundaries of what is possible. Not to reinvent the wheel.


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.

Robert Walker is former chairman of the U.S. House Science, Space, and Technology Committee and former chairman of the Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry.