In her speech last week at CSIS, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison endorsed (although not by its specific name) NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to support the development of commercial vehicles to transport cargo and personnel to and from the ISS. She sees this approach as one way of dealing with the potential four-year gap between the retirement of the shuttle and the introduction of the CEV. “I think if we, in the next five years, put some money into the private sector as seed money, and we see that there can be progress there, of course that would be a wonderful option,” she said. “Certainly, I think, if we can get the private sector up to speed, that would be a great option.”
In an editorial in today’s issue, the Houston Chronicle supports Hutchison’s statements, but wonders if NASA is doing enough:
NASA has taken a few halting steps to encourage non-government development of space technology, including sponsoring a $2 million contest modeled on the $10 million Ansari X Prize won by Rutan for the historic suborbital flight of SpaceShipOne. The NASA contest, to be conducted by the X Prize Foundation, challenges designers to come up with a means to shuttle astronauts and cargo between the lunar surface and orbit. It also has asked the aerospace industry to come up with new technologies to provide needed transportation to and from the International Space Station.
These are good first steps, but alone they will not stimulate the massive involvement by private industry needed to boost the space program. NASA should develop a long-range strategy to harness the engine of free enterprise for the exploration of space, with government providing regulatory oversight, while allowing private partners in the pilot’s seat. After all, a formula that made the United States the most powerful nation on Earth should work just as well on the moon and beyond.
This sort of glosses over the $500 million that NASA has committed to COTS through 2009, which is designed to “stimulate the massive involvement by private industry” seen, in part, by the strong interest in the COTS program by the industry. A bigger near-term challenge for NASA—and Congress—may not be drafting a long-term strategy for private sector involvement in the Vision for Space Exploration, but simply ensuring that planned COTS funding for FY2007 and beyond remains intact.