By Rick Tumlinson, for Space News, January 23, 2006

From the very first times Americans began to raise themselves above the Earth’s surface in flying machines, there has been a synergy between the needs and desires of civilian (commercial) and military uses of the skies – at increasingly higher altitudes.

From the earliest balloon flights through the development of the airplane early in the last century, through today when both civilian and military aircraft criss-cross the skies, access to the air has been achieved through an organic and profitable interaction between the needs of civilians and the military.

The same has not yet happened in the area of access to space. As a result both public and military human space transport are virtually in the same state they were at the beginning of the space age. Although both have access to a wide range of space-enabled telecommunications capability, the ability of a civilian to climb aboard a “spaceliner” for a trip to the other side of the world or a warfighter to deploy to the front via a space plane is still in the realm of science fiction.

This odd delay in such developments (given that humans walked on the Moon more than 30 years ago) has its roots in a historical set of decisions that took the development of human space access down a different path than access to the air. We all know the stories of the cross fertilization that occurred between such projects as the C-47 (DC-3), KC135 (Boeing 707) and the origins of the Boeing 747 as part of a competition to build a large military transport aircraft. Other, less-visible synergies and cross fertilization occurred across the board in a variety of aviation technology developments that include navigation and communication, to display and safety systems. Infrastructure development and the sharing of advances flow almost seamlessly from one side to the other – enhancing the development and abilities of both.

Not so for space. Unlike air travel, where the overlapping needs of the two cultures have continued to support each other from the very beginning, human spaceflight has been in the hands of a third player – NASA – since its inception. And NASA’s needs unfortunately have little in common with the needs of military, commercial or other civil agencies.

In fact, embryonic programs started or under way in the military were canceled or moved into NASA, in the interests of consolidation perhaps, and of course, turf. And why not have it all under one roof? After all, it was all about putting people in space, wasn’t it?

No, it wasn’t, and it isn’t.

NASA has very different drivers and metrics for success than either the military or commercial sectors. Unlike the other two groups, whose needs focus on bottom-line elements such as economics, robustness, ease and frequency of use, NASA’s goals were and are completely different. For example, at the time of its inception and injection into the human space equation, the agency was driven by the imperative to get to a single destination (the Moon) at least once, with no real plans to create the sort of routine access or systems one might need for reliable, economic and ongoing transportation – a mandate shared by the military and commercial sectors.

So decades later, we find ourselves with no human military access to space at all. We can launch a nuke and obliterate an entire nation, but we can’t lob a squad of special forces to grab a Bin Laden. We can stop a barrage of nukes coming our way, but if a BB hits one of our satellites we cannot send out someone to fix it. We can launch a school bus-sized do-it-all monster satellite to a fixed orbit, but we cannot pop up an extra set of eyes to aid a commander in the field. And yet, these more versatile, fast-response, lower-cost capabilities are exactly what this new war on terrorism calls for.

It is crazy how things sometimes work in the ebb and flow of history, especially in free enterprise democracies (the part of our nation outside the doors of NASA or the Defense Department) for just as we have a compelling national security need to find a new way to move into and through space, American entrepreneurs are developing the solutions.

Low-cost, reusable, reliable and safe transportation for smaller payloads and people is exactly what our commercial NewSpace industry is doing – for its own reasons. The development of commercial sub-orbital and orbital space vehicles already is happening – funded by investors and entrepreneurs, and with a little financial, technical and legislative help – could revolutionize not just civilian space transportation, but the military as well.

This new industry is alive, but barely so. Although some elements in NASA are trying to work with and support them with a few crumbs from the budgetary banquet table, much more help is needed at this critical moment to help this industry survive. And perhaps NASA just isn’t the right partner.

NASA is once again focused on a single point goal (ok, two points if you include a landing on the Moon and Mars) and is dead set on developing a massive, non-robust, non-economic, non-responsive system in house to reach that goal – with no thought as to how to sustain its achievement. In other words, they have no interest in systems that lead to an established economy in space (private-sector thinking) or to holding and expanding a beach-head or battle front (military-sector thinking).

If they get back to the Moon and toss a handful of Armstrongs on Mars, they are done. And although every once in a while some effort is made to merge the two, until and unless NASA decides it is going to open the frontier, rather than visit it, the military and commercial sectors are on their own.

So what do we do about it? Last fall, at a special meeting prior to the Space Frontier Foundation conference in Los Angeles, a group of chief executives and other leaders of the NewSpace industry gathered to discuss how to re-create that relationship, except this time between our defenders and these innovative new entrants to the space arena.

The NewSpace industry believes the Pentagon’s new requirement for Operationally Responsive Space and commercial human spaceflight in particular are completely synergistic. The Pentagon wants creative, small, cheap and tough, which may as well be the definition of NewSpace. From engineering to infrastructure, from creativity to capital, there is great convergence between the two sectors. Once again, as in the halcyon days of early aviation, the chance to catalyze and fertilize exists. The businessperson and the brigadier are on the same page on this one, so let’s make it happen.

As remarkable as it seems, to that end, the NewSpace representatives were able to join their many and different voices into one, and produce a set of concepts they believe will enable this new partnership. The firms present represented a wide range of approaches and business plans, but they put aside their differences to seek common ground. To help this process begin, and begin the dialogue, they are calling for the actions below to be taken by the White House:

  • Direct the Defense Department (and other U.S. government agencies) to develop outreach and feedback mechanisms to gain greater insight into the NewSpace industry’s capabilities and plans.
  • Confer with the NewSpace industry to ensure that government technology research plans will intersect with their probable future needs.
  • Spend some minimum fraction of Defense Department (and other U.S. government agencies) space transportation research funding on technologies that will have broad common utility for the NewSpace industry and the Pentagon.
  • Direct the Defense Department (and other U.S. government agencies) to develop and utilize purchasing and acquisition methods such as prizes, Other Transactions Authority agreements, and pay for delivery contracts to stimulate the growth and innovation of the NewSpace industry.
  • Publish an annual report to Congress on the progress of U.S. government efforts to gain leverage from the private technology and capability investments of the NewSpace industry.
  • Support a regulatory regime that encourages rather than inhibits the development of commercial human spaceflight – for example streamlining or removing such barriers to success as the International Traffic in Arms regulations.
  • Create a National Space Access Advisory Committee, to be composed of leaders of the NewSpace industry and the relevant decision makers in government, to guide and accelerate these and subsequent federal efforts.

These ideas speak for themselves, given the historical context I outlined before. (And perhaps some at NASA might want to print out a copy or two and post it on the wall.) If we can re-create this partnership, America will not only be safer and stronger, we will be taking a path that leads to a future worth fighting for – for ourselves and the rest of the world.

Rick Tumlinson, Founder of the Space Frontier Foundation, is a space policy expert and editor of the recently published Return to the Moon.

The Space Frontier Foundation is an organization of people dedicated to opening the Space Frontier to human settlement as rapidly as possible. Our goals include protecting the Earth’s fragile biosphere and creating a freer and more prosperous life for each generation by using the unlimited energy and material resources of space. Our purpose is to unleash the power of free enterprise and lead a united humanity permanently into the Solar System.