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  • Space Programs Fueled By Cash
    Posted by Jeffrey Manber 3:10 PM on Jan 28, 2010

    So we have finally come face to face with reality. Our space program is at a historic crossroad--taking the first steps in procuring launch services from the private sector. Does it matter? You bet it does.

     

    At stake in the current Washington debate is nothing more than our surrender of the leadership in space exploration. One can easily envision by decades' end a multiplicity of non U.S. national programs with human capabilities, orbiting platforms and cutting edge unmanned capabilities. Other spacefaring nations are advancing far more rapidly than official Washington can grasp. And the reason is simple: with none of the hand wringing afflicting America's space policy officials, other space agencies and their leaders have embraced with gusto the commercial path.

     

    For those seeking to advance in space exploration, the question is simple: why laboriously develop when buying is available?

     

    But cash for space goods and services is still a taboo subject here in Washington. I suppose it was considered too radical even by the Augustine Commission which hotly debated moving in tiny baby steps towards unleashing the private sector in space operations. We are seemingly unable to admit that an international space bazaar is open for business, one that is shaping at warp-speed the space exploration landscape without us. Available via the commercial path is manned transportation, man-rated vehicles, unmanned launch vehicles and cutting edge sensors for a variety of civil, commercial and military uses. And I'm happy to report that customer demand is strong. First China took the commercial route with non-government contracts with the Russians via Star City and RKK Energia for development of manned programs. Fast behind China is now South Korea and India, both of whom are leveraging internal development with commercial acquisitions from the Russians as quickly as possible.

     

    A sure sign of market liquidity and growth is that the buyers are now evolving into sellers. India is  also commercially marketing a wide range of services, Japan is promising a new era of "commercial development" rather than technology development and in a sure sign of the intensity of competition, China and Russia are offering soft loans for satellite services.

     

    The rapid growth in the international sector for space goods and services is testimonial to the strength and adaptability of the American free market system yet--oh, sorry, all are playing except for NASA. Nor have we shown gratitude. Consider that the Russian's ability to maintain transportation services to the International Space Station--and hence save our largest space program--is based on their adopting in the 1990's commercial crew practices--charging Europeans and Americans for manned launch services done via a privatized organization. Without that evolution, the ISS would have suffered a Skylab-like fate after the Columbia disaster. 

     

    Rapid development of capabilities is but one reason to take the commercial path. Another is budgetary woes. Consider, to briefly site one example, Antrix--the commercial arm of the Indian Space Agency--contributes almost 50% of the annual budget of the ISRO.

     

    For far too long we have maintained a space program devoid of open markets, even though this is what we, as a nation, do best. The solution is obvious. NASA must be encouraged to supply goods and services to the international community on a fee-basis. Yes, take money for work done with Europe or with India or with China or with Brazil. And pay money when we need goods and services. Yes, that's right--admit that at times it might be better for NASA to purchase rather than develop internally. Russia transportation services to and from the International Space Station should not be an exception.

     

    Charging of fees for goods and services in space operations is downright American is it not? And, at the same time, NASA must be allowed to keep the funds that it receives for foreign partnerships. So doing would also allow the space agency to move far easier into a more commercial relationship with our domestic space marketplace. And those sectors of NASA that are competitive will thrive and those that are not will be clearly identified.

    Seen in the international context, the solutions now being proposed by the Obama administration--to have NASA pay are for cargo transportation services is only a first step. A wonderful first step, like that of any toddler, but taken alone these steps won't fully grow our program. We have not arrived at this embarrassing moment in our space exploration program because of a domestic disagreement in hardware or whether we budget enough funding for space exploration. It is because even though America has famously preached to others that free markets always triumph over centralized government sectors we stubbornly cling to the centralized government sector for space. The collapse of the Soviet Union lead to capitalism evolving into outer space. Other nations understand and are jumping on board the commercial path. And we are last--dead last-- to join in this new and wonderful era.

     

    Now it is up to Congress. To defend the status quo or join the revolution of American-style open markets in space.

    Tags: os99, NASA, Obama, Bolden, SpaceX

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