A U.S. Department of Space?


A few weeks ago the hatch opened into the interior of the Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) Dragon capsule, and crew members from the international space station (ISS) unloaded cargo from the first private spacecraft docked at station. The crew noted that upon entering Dragon, it smelled like the interior of a new car. I don’t recall any such comment when logistics crafts built and serviced by multinational and defense corporations of other ISS partner nations docked with station for the first time.

Once unloaded, Dragon returned to Earth precisely on target in the Pacific near Baja California. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden noted that a new era in space activity had begun.

It is rightly SpaceX’s time to shine. With a fraction of a fraction of the resources that governments and partner nations employ to create and support space missions, this small, can-do company in Southern California has made giant strides into a domain that was the monopoly of government-run space agencies of sovereign nations. A small business running out of a warehouse near Los Angeles is now able to support ISS logistics! Such are the true signs of progress in advancing life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

This “first mover” advantage should go a long way to establish SpaceX as the leader in private, commercial space activity. However, several small companies also are lining up hardware and operational flight plans. They include Virgin Galactic, Orbital Sciences, Blue Origin, XCOR, Bigelow Aerospace, Sierra Nevada Corp. and, most recently, Paul Allen’s new consortium to build and service an air-launched orbital vehicle called Stratolaunch.

NASA has been asked to do too much with too little for too long, and in keeping with the erratic budget trims and fixes, the agency’s vision has been badly warped over time. A clear vision is crucial for success. In the Kennedy directive to reach for the Moon, the choice of words articulating the vision were very clear. The NASA vision of today is nebulous and seems to pay lip service, catering to do all things for everyone.

NASA projects, by virtue of their one-of-a-kind, never-tried-before nature, must have open-ended budgets. But the agency has a history of being told by Congress to build projects with budgets that are insufficient, or worse, budgets that follow a rowdy on-again/off-again cycle rather than a steady flow of funds.

Visions and ideas are precious, irrespective of their origin. They help planners to choose between options to shape the way forward. NASA has been accused of the “not invented here” syndrome that seems to affect large agencies. However, it is good to see NASA fielding out visionary architecture studies to universities through programs like the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts. It would be much better if all visionary studies were done that way.

Recent visions include a U.S. Air Force study to put up solar-powered satellites to bolster U.S. and global energy security, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology report that seeks to reinvigorate human spaceflight through renewed international collaboration, and a California Institute of Technology report on accessing the asteroid belt for resources. Large defense contractors like Boeing and Lockheed Martin also have proposed new concepts, such as orbital fuel depots and technology test bed missions to the Moon.

Government space projects, or programs (as they are more aptly called), are about building and maintaining very large and expensive infrastructures. Proposed projects include planetary defense infrastructures, orbital debris mitigation systems, climate change and pollution monitoring programs, large GPS and defense-related constellations and assets, and manned lunar, asteroid and Mars missions. Private space projects, like space tourism and ISS logistics support, cost orders of magnitude less.

Since the scope and budgets are very different, it goes without saying that the processes and mindset behind government and private space programs are very different as well. Government space programs have always been about national pride and international prestige, much like those evolving in China and Russia today, not to mention government jobs. It is not an economic matter as much as a policy-related one. The returns have been expected in broad international collaboration and results have been meant to steer and align administration policy to gain advantage in statecraft, both domestic and globally. Private space activity, on the other hand, is all about the profit-minded entrepreneur.

However, in the current economic climate, it is perhaps necessary to merge these philosophies and operate using synergies of both the public and private sector.

U.S. President Barack Obama is looking at restructuring his Cabinet to fit the needs of the 21st century, and perhaps now is the time to consider a U.S. Department of Space that can play a vital role in international policy. Besides helping to build up the infrastructure of friendly nations, align the projects and goals of various spacefaring nations and assist in global projects such as international manned missions and space debris mitigation, a Department of Space also would help to coordinate the activities of fledgling private space companies, which have a history of being squashed as NASA protects its charter and monopoly.

A range of options are available, from asking NASA to play the role of global coordinator to proposing a completely new organization and charter for space activity. NASA could, in theory, create a new division to coordinate such activity, evolving and extending the ISS model of international collaboration, but such activity would clearly distract resources and personnel from NASA’s leading-edge space technology and mission charter, and detract from the agency’s core competence. The creation of a U.S. Department of Space, however, might balance these two poles. And the private space sector could use a moderating, synergizing body between it and the government space sector.

Even before the imminent advent of routine suborbital space tourism flights by Virgin Galactic and others, the Federal Aviation Administration is involved, studying the potential impact and safety on airline traffic. As commercial spaceflight comes of age, we can expect the Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Occupational Safety and Health Administration to become important players as well. And the State Department already has played a notorious role in suppressing space commerce under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations and Missile Technology Control Regime.

NASA may not be able to handle all these auxiliary functions that will be thrust upon it soon without radical changes to the agency’s charter. It is perhaps better for the agency to stay close to its original charter, as the administrator has indicated, and provide leadership in its area of core competency: high-risk technology development and deep-space, endurance-class manned missions to destinations beyond Earth orbit.

A Department of Space must not be misconstrued as a threat to break up NASA or split up its stretched budget. Nor should it be portrayed as a stealthy effort by the Department of Defense (DoD) to exert influence globally.

A University of Southern California team project from last fall presented a case that the Department of Space should operate at a budget level of some $60 billion, consistent with other departments, of which NASA should have $20 billion to build, test and fly daring, leading-edge technology missions into deep space. An additional $40 billion is suggested for the department to handle all the coordination functions among large global infrastructure development projects, NASA and other partner nation agencies, and the private sector.

Government and private space activities are both necessary to keep the space industry in good competitive shape. Just as the Human Genome Project was accelerated by Celera Genomics, a small biotech company, large government-sponsored space programs can benefit from small space companies, acting as catalysts for quick results.

Large space infrastructure development projects that cannot be initiated or created by private investors alone, such as space solar power, orbital debris mitigation, fuel depots, interplanetary missions or even large space based observatories, remain the domain of NASA and the government. However, servicing these large systems, once put in place, could be a healthy sector for private participation in the near future.

The role of the Department of Space must be one of coordination between government and private space activity. Can NASA aspire to change its deeply ingrained culture and become such an entity? If we look at the history of failed private space efforts, the answer is no.

Should the 21st century creation and maintenance of national security infrastructure depend on obsolete DoD practices and a few established sole source suppliers, or should it be spread out over a much larger and more competitive commercial sector, including small business? If civil jobs protection is the goal, we might stay with status quo (though it is clearly unsustainable), but if true jobs expansion is what we seek, we might want a much more vigorous overhaul that includes the private sector at the core of all formulation plans.

New information and manufacturing technologies now clearly favor the latter, from both the agility and economic points of view. It is possible for small companies to innovate and field systems at a fraction of the cost and overhead of larger corporations. The same strategy that produced design results for complex protein folding methods in biology by presenting the problem to be solved over the Internet to a wide audience is now being probed to enhance and create national security projects. “Crowd sourcing” is seen as the next level of sophistication for designing and building complex systems, including space systems.

Human space activity remains a special endeavor that is able to bring the finest minds together in peaceful projects of progressive development. Spacefaring nations that once aimed their nuclear arsenals at each other have joined forces to support the buildup and operations of ISS. The next stage in this development is handing over the reins to global commerce and economic development.

Space remains the ultimate frontier. Among all spacefaring nations today, the U.S., with a Constitution that resonates with the freedom of mankind, is best suited for expanding activities. Can U.S. space policy be reshaped to encompass a globally inclusive, civilian paradigm? Can the U.S. shepherd the spacefaring nations of the world in undertaking visionary space infrastructure development projects? The answer for speeding up progress may lie in the creation of a U.S. Department of Space to combine the energies of the government space programs of the world and coordinate the various private space projects as well as assist in the pursuit of excellence in progressive, peaceful space activities.


Madhu Thangavelu is conductor of the ASTE527 Graduate Space Concepts Studio in the Department of Astronautical Engineering and graduate thesis adviser in the School of Architecture at the University of Southern California.