May 28, 2012
Credit: Photo Credit: Reuters/Landov
The long march of New Space revolutionaries passed a meaningful marker with Space Exploration Technologies' Falcon 9/Dragon flight last week (see p. 35). The second for SpaceX's big launcher and its Dragon capsule, it was the first “revenue flight,” carrying cargo in a vehicle intended one day to ferry people as well to and from low Earth orbit. That should start with astronauts to the International Space Station. NASA currently pays about $60 million per seat to fly astronauts to the station on Russia's venerable Soyuz.
The Dragon mission was still underway late last week (go to AviationWeek.com for the latest), but SpaceX engineers and controllers had certainly proved their mettle even before a planned berthing at the station. It takes nothing away from their achievement to note the broad range of new commercial space projects in progress. Companies like Bigelow, Boeing, Blue Origin, Orbital Sciences, Sierra Nevada, Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace are not just drawing plans; they are building, testing and flying hardware—and signing customers.
But there are storm clouds on the horizon, at least for those who hope the U.S. government continues to play a constructive anchor-customer role in the development of an industry that could one day make space flight as commonplace as air travel.
The irony is that NASA, after years of ineptitude and broken promises regarding commercial space, finally seems to “get it.” That did not come naturally. Over decades, NASA has made the mistake of thinking it could both enjoy the benefits of a free market and manage the market. It tried to project demand for services that did not exist at price points no one could know. It coerced public-private partnerships that badly meshed its own unique requirements and taste for exotic new technologies together with the private sector's desire for the cheap, the proven and the reliable.
But NASA has learned how to help and stay out of the way. Witness COTS, the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program for cargo, and the follow-on Commercial Crew program. This new thrust began during the administration of President George W. Bush, and Barack Obama's has sought to accelerate it.
Sadly, as bureaucrats place more trust in entrepreneurs and innovators—and the private sector takes bigger risks—powerful members of Congress seem determined to hold fast to the cost-plus, micromanaged procurement models of yesteryear.
Some months ago, the Obama administration sought to slow work on the Space Launch System, a new heavy-lifter for astronauts on exploration missions. The hope was to put more into developing launch technologies that all could use. Yet even though two large launchers are already available, Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) rallied to protect jobs in their states. Congress mandated the continued development of what wags now call the Senate Launch System.
More recently, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee panel responsible for NASA's budget, trotted out a trio of Apollo astronauts to testify that it is best not to spend too much seeding a commercial space industry, given the other work the agency has to do. And now, the full House and appropriators in the Senate have voted to slash the $836 million NASA is requesting for Commercial Crew next fiscal year to $500-525 million. Even worse, the House would direct NASA to abandon plans to fund work by two providers and support just one, or perhaps a “leader” and “follower.” Down-selecting to a sole source at this early stage would throw away one of the key advantages of free enterprise—competition.
While this would cut costs in the short run, it is short-sighted in the extreme. It may not stick, but don't bet on a reversal. Powerful interests seek to keep human spaceflight a federal program, and have little interest in growing a new commercial industry that might challenge the traditional government contractors. And the administration, for its part, has done a pitiful job of promoting its vision of the future of astronautics. Allowing the retirement of the space shuttle to dominate the public conversation, the administration is seen as pulling back from human spaceflight, even as it tries to expand Commercial Crew and space station operations.