Congress

Supporting the private sector

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.

26 comments to Supporting the private sector

  • We COTS supporters should take a lesson from what happened to the scientists. As soon as Dr. Griffin gets into a new round of financial trouble with the lunar infrastructure, I expect COTS to be next on the chopping block. Losing COTS would be far more damaging to our future in space than losing a few automated science missions. My hope is that Dr. Griffin understands that — but money is not going to get any less tight going forward.

    – Donald

  • Jeff,

    while I certainly agree that COTS funding is critical, and that COTS is NASA’s flagship effort to engage the commercial space sector, this editorial is much more powerful than anything I’ve ever seen in the MSM.

    Consider the last sentence: “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.” Of course this is self-evident to all of us, but can you imagine these words appearing on the editorial page of the Huntsville Times or even the LA Times?

    As so many have opined here, one of the weaknesses of ESAS is that it creates a single-string transportation capability.

    COTS should not become a single-string experiment in pseudo-capitalism. Because if COTS fails (for one of many reasons, some likely to be NASA’s “fault”), we will be stuck with yet another round of reasons to be angry at NASA, instead of a growing cislunar economy.

    NewSpace supporters need to identify and advocate for MANY more windows-of-opportunity for NASA to enable and purchase commercial services. Lunar Comm/Nav is an obvious one, but there are others as well.

    – Jim

  • Bill White

    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 quote raises an interesting question.

    While I agree that the “American spirit” (however that may be defined by different people) can and will work just as well out there as it has here, will those humans beings who carry that spirit out there possess more than a sentimental fealty to the government currently ensconced inside the Beltway? If American space settlers do seek political independence they will likely have a special relation with Washington DC (just as we do with London, today) however the US interacts freely with all the nations of the Earth, not just Mother England.

    The Spirit of 1776 and all that. Or perhaps we can invoke the memory of Lafayette (Heh!, Frenchie dog!).

    American moon-miners may very well wish to sell to all the world, not merely through the US. Just as ocean freighters are often flagged through Greece, Liberia or elsewhere, locations such as Singapore or the Isle of Man could be useful venues for American business to set up shop as they prepare for a priveat sector moon base.

    If we fail to pass “zero-gee – zero tax” the financial incentives to do just that could be large.

    But there be dragons, there. (ITAR!)

    = = =

    NASA should develop a long-range strategy to harness the engine of free enterprise for the exploration of space

    (a) Yes, NASA should do this, but,

    (b) Shouldn’t this be everyone’s job, not merely NASA?

    The problem with the quote is that it suggests others should wait for NASA to take the lead on this. At ISDC 2005 Diamondis talked about the private sector making a bee-line for the Moon. So long as editorials like this presume that NASA needs to take the lead, private sectors guys may need to think off-shore, and that (of course) is where the ITAR dragons live.

  • Bill, your second point is a good one and well taken.

    Likewise, your first point. How long did the American colonists remain loyal to London? However, going independent in space will be much harder because it is hard to live completely off the land. On the other hand, complete resource independence is not required, only economic independence. That is, if there is someone on Earth you can trade with for the supplies you need, you don’t need to produce them at home.

    The various “revolts” among space station astronauts (note the small case; not just the ISS) show just how hard it will be to make space workers toe the Washington line. . . .

    This is a good thing, and I would argue one of the most important reasons for a human space program. Humanity needs space to experiment with new social orders that can function in, and learn from, alien environments — something that is very difficult to do on our thuroughly colonized world.

    – Donald

  • Bill,

    I certainly agree that other public and private agencies should strive to unleash the private sector in space. But NASA is in the space exploration business. The Chronicle is saying that to accomplish that mission NASA should have a strategy of engaging the private sector.

    No one is saying that NASA’s strategy should be the be-all-and-end-all of the US federal government’s strategy, or the human strategy.

    I simply want NASA to be aligned with the goal, instead of standing in opposition.

  • Aaron Oesterle

    One good way to get involved in large scale private sector involvement in the ESAS – Get nasa to commit making the CEV and the Lunar Lander (are they calling that the LCCL, or is it something else) to be launcher independent. We all know that launch costs have been the driving factor for space travel (or rather, lack of it). CEV is likely to be around for 20-30 years. If thatas the case, and its stuck to todays technology, we end up with the shuttle all over again. However, if we get true launch vehicle independence, then we could put in place true market forces for launch costs. This is a small area Nasa could get involvement in ESAS. IMHO, this is the one thing that could really radically alter ESAS – launch vehicle independence, and its not something that will kill ESAS.

    Which bring me to the question (and Mr. Muncy, I’d have like to ask you about this at ProSpace, but I didn’t think about it until later, and I haven’t been to any other events this year) how hard would this be to push politically, and to the more techologically trained than me, how hard would this be techologically? Can we make a manned vehicle (CEV and the like) that has engineering margins high enough that it can be done?

  • Nemo

    Get nasa to commit making the CEV and the Lunar Lander (are they calling that the LCCL, or is it something else)

    Lunar Surface Access Module, or LSAM.

  • Bill White

    Aaron,

    If a lunar lander is re-useable and is parked at EML-1 (for example) the launcher is irrelevant. Launch it once. Use it many times. Next, CEV’s mission should NOT be routine travel between Earth and LEO. Lunar return velocities require greater heat shielding (weight) than LEO return. Therefore, CEV is overkill for orbital missions.

    Let t/Space and Musk design better cheaper Earth to LEO taxis. Do not ask the CEV to perform too many functions in order to spread work among various launch providers.

    Me? I’d like a big robust CEV that aerocaptured and parked in LEO and then teeny tiny crew taxis ferried people to and from CEV.

    = = =

    America’s launch industry will never be commercially competitive until it forced to compete at Russian launch price levels. A true free market solution would be for NASA to buy Proton and Soyuz.

    Okay, I do agree there are legitimate national security considerations here (and prestige) and I do not advocate this route for NASA but if we were to outlaw Honda or Toyota imports and then crow about American competitiveness when Ford or Chevy “wins” the domestic auto market, well that would just be silly.

  • Aaron, I have argued that the CEV should be launched on (both) the EELVs. The benefits include a larger market for the EELVs, amortizing their infrastructure costs over a larger number of users; foregoing the cost of developing and maintaining yet another medium-class launch vehicle; making the EELVs more competative overseas; enforcing mass control on the CEV, making them launchable on a larger number of vehicles, which would reduce costs and greatly increase flexibility, etc., etc. That was not the decision that was made, and I still support the VSE, but I am convinced that history will show failure to use the EELVs was the wrong decision.

    – Donald

  • Aaron Oesterle

    If a lunar lander is re-useable

    Thats a mighty big if. Last I was hearing, although I haven’t been paying close attention, I got the impression nothing was gonna be reused.

    Next, CEV’s mission should NOT be routine travel between Earth and LEO. Lunar return velocities require greater heat shielding (weight) than LEO return. Therefore, CEV is overkill for orbital missions.

    Let t/Space and Musk design better cheaper Earth to LEO taxis. Do not ask the CEV to perform too many functions in order to spread work among various launch providers.

    Me? I’d like a big robust CEV that aerocaptured and parked in LEO and then teeny tiny crew taxis ferried people to and from CEV.

    Except that, thats not what they are planning. Assuming COTS is successful, yes they will use it to ferry the crew, but not because of cost, but because of body bags. Right now, CEV is a one time use craft (at least, thats the what they seem to imply) and so again, we are talking about a new CEV launch for every mission.

    And as far as CEV overkill for Earth Orbit – duh comes to mind. But there are many members of Congress who seem to think CEV is a shuttle replacement, and will try and force that to happen.

    What you want really is a complete re-write of VSE, something I hope happens, but frankly, don’t expect. Launcher independence is something small that I don’t think will kill it technically, or politically, but does opens up some new options for private enterprise. (and no, I am not a crazy free marketer, I’d almost certainly would never vote republicain, but I understand market forces)

    -
    Donald – limiting it to EELV is no improvement either – Anyone really ready to trust either Boeing or Lockmart after the shit they pull all the time when it comes to cost.

    what we need is true launcher independence. It should be designed so that it can be launch on one of musk’s rockets, on EELV, on CLV, on a Zenit (or Proton or any particular Russain rocket) even on, wait for it, an Ariane 5. Maybe even see if a Long March will work. Hell, if liftport builds their elevator, a launcher independent CEV could take advantage of it concievable.

    This doesn’t mean we don’t fund CLV and CaLV (or however it works out) but, this brings me to my final point – what we need to do is ask Griffin point blank – is CEV launcher independent?

  • Aaron: I meant that short-term. If and when Mr. Musk, et al, actually produce something, the CEV should be launched on it. I agree with you about true launcher independence. My understanding is that was one of Mr. O’Keefe’s requirements — a lesson learned from Columbia — that was later dropped by Dr. Griffin.

    I believe the CEV is supposedly designed for something like ten re-uses.

    I have submitted an Op Ed piece to Space News regarding re-use of lunar upper stage propulsion using slightly modified CEV infrastructure (among other things). Look out for it.

    – Donald

  • Nemo

    My wild-assed guess is that was one of Mr. O’Keefe’s requirements — a lesson learned from Columbia — that was later dropped by Dr. Griffin.

    I fixed your spelling. If you disagree, feel free to produce a solid cite for Mr. O’Keefe’s “requirement”.

  • Bill White

    If a lunar lander is re-useable

    Thats a mighty big if. Last I was hearing, although I haven’t been paying close attention, I got the impression nothing was gonna be reused.

    . . .

    It seems to me that NASA funding of the lunar hopper challenge through the X Prize demonstrates a real interest in re-useable LSAM technology. Why else fund hopper development?

    A single stage fully re-useable LSAM would be quite useful if combined with lunar LO2 production, suborbital hops for exploration for example, as well as Luna to EML-1.

    If we are serious about seeking a genuine cis-lunar economy, then it seems to me that an r-LSAM and lunar LO2 are pretty much essential.

  • Dennis Ray Wingo

    Question for Jim Muncy

    Do you think that commercial comm/nav has a chance with GSFC in Control of that aspect of lunar exploration? With the withdrawal of support from Ames this past week by MSFC and Senator Shelby do you seriously think that Mike Griffin would go up against Barbara Mikulski on this?

    Dennis

  • Brent Johnson

    Has there been any reports or studies published that have investigated what market drivers, things like infrastructure, technical systems, even comparisons to existing business models and systems, actually effect commercialization? We have heard for decades that space commercialization is “just around the corner”, yet a commercial sector that is independent of Federal Funding has not developed. We have to be overlooking something in all of this analysis.

    Just a thought.

  • Bill White

    A commercial sector that is independent of Federal Funding has not developed. We have to be overlooking something in all of this analysis.

    What are the likely revenue sources? Where will non-taxpayer sourced income come from? Let me know if I miss any here:

    (a) Tourism;

    Space advocates are all over that one already.

    (b) Mining;

    Lunar He3 and PGMs. Asteroids further out in time. Water and volatiles don’t really count since harvesting those resources would reduce the cost of space exploration but they wouldn’t be marketable on Earth.

    Space solar power fits in here, if it can be made financially viable.

    (c) Private sponsored science;

    Privately financed observatories for example.

    (d) Media, marketing & brand value enhancements.

    This last is my personal favorite.

    It has been said that a good story, told well, will ALWAYS sell. The permanent human expansion beyond the Earth has to be one of the greatest stories in our species history. If Hollywood, et. al. cannot figure out how to sell that, maybe we deserve to go extinct as a one planet species.

    The essence of “brand value” is persuading a consumer to buy Brand X rather than Brand Y when those items are objectively the same. Bottled water (Aquafina vs Dasani) is an example that tickles me. Try and get a scientist to find an objective difference between various bottled waters.

    Anyway, if there were a moonbase and if Dasani were the official water of that moonbase, you would generate non-taxpayer sourced revenue. That Russian-Canadian golf shot from ISS is another example. These are small amounts of money, but Nike does pay Tiger Woods large amounts of money.

    Am I missing any categories?

  • Dennis,

    let’s just say that the signs are not terribly favorable.

    – Jim

  • Dennis Wingo

    Brent

    There is a vibrant commerical space sector out there. It is called the GEO communications industry. It makes money. The economic metrics are very clear and there is an entire political, financial, insurance, and technical infrastructure that supports it.

    After a very long time and a good bit of anchor federal funding, the remote sensing industry is on the way to maturation. There is still a ways to go but it is far better than it was in the initial steps toward commercialization in the 1980′s.

    Jim Muncy

    I agree. Yet there is still hope and Orbital Recovery will be announcing something very interesting in the next several days.
    :)

    Dennis

  • Bill White

    Dennis, I left this one off my list because there is no need for any people to go out to do this:

    There is a vibrant commerical space sector out there. It is called the GEO communications industry. It makes money. The economic metrics are very clear and there is an entire political, financial, insurance, and technical infrastructure that supports it.

    The absence of any political, financial, insurance, and technical infrastructure for humans in space is quite telling, in contrast.

  • Bill, while I generally agree with your analysis, I strongly disagree with this statement: Water and volatiles don’t really count since harvesting those resources would reduce the cost of space exploration but they wouldn’t be marketable on Earth.

    What I call the “oxygen trade” really will count in exactly the way that better launch vehicles would count. Reducing the cost of space transportation helps everyone and everything you do in space. Suppose lunar oxygen were readily available in LEO. You instantly reduce the cost of supporting the Space Station be a rather large amount. That is “earned” money, retained opportunity costs, that can be deployed to something other than supporting the Space Station. (Note that, in this analysis, why we are supporting the Space Station is irrelevant. The fact that we are, and appear likely to continue doing so, means that finding ways to do it for less money is a commercially valuable benefit.)

    To put it another way, if people on Earth consider “space exploration” to be worth supporting, that in and of itself is a market. If private companies can figure out ways to do the “space exploration” that people on Earth have determined (for whatever reason) is worth paying for, people on Earth should be willing to pay for that technology to reduce their total cost per unit result.

    Orbital Recovery is a good case in point. They are marketing a service to the space industry in space that may reduce the cost of providing a completely different service to people on Earth. This is a net good for space industrialization, and we should hope and expect to see a lot more of it going forward. The “oxygen trade” would be an important part of that.

    – Donald

  • Bill White

    Donald – make no mistake about my position. Lunar oxygen is absolutely essential for a cis-lunar economy. No lunar LO2/H2O and there will be no viable cis-lunar economy in my opinion.

    However, harvesting lunar LO2 all by itself, without (1) tourism; (2) mining He3 or PGM; private science projects; or (4) media/marketing simply will not generate any revenue. Selling LO2 to NASA remains a taxpayer funded operation even if it saves NASA money, which still is an altogether good thing.

    Lunar LO2 does lower costs substantially. It does not produce revenue.

    = = =

    If people on Earth consider “space exploration” to be worth supporting, that in and of itself is a market.

    Precisely. And Big Media should be able to tell and sell that story for a profit. Starting with the sale of TV rights for our lunar return.

  • Dennis Wingo

    The absence of any political, financial, insurance, and technical infrastructure for humans in space is quite telling, in contrast.

    **********************

    Bill

    What it tells us is that no one has been able to put the capital together yet to figure out something profitable for people to do in space. This, in my opinion, is only a matter of time.

    Dennis

  • Dennis Wingo

    Donald

    I heard something very interesting about EELV and CEV. The Delta IV is not a good bird to launch people on. The ascent profile is too steep due to the high energy first stage. The reentry loads in abort scenarios are too hard on fragile human cargo.

    The Atlas V is just dandy though.

    Dennis

  • The Delta IV is not a good bird to launch people on.

    Yes, straight up cryogenic space flight is dangerous. Who knew!

    That may stop NASA from flying people on the Delta IV Medium, but the Delta IV Medium isn’t NASA’s vehicle, so I can hardly see how that can stop others from flying on it.

    A expensive, heavy, armored CEV, using SRBs, is not an appropriate manner for transferring people to and from low earth orbit.

  • Edward Wright

    > I certainly agree that COTS funding is critical, and that COTS is NASA’s flagship effort to engage the
    > commercial space sector, this editorial is much more powerful than anything I’ve ever seen in the MSM.

    Why is COTS funding critical, Jim?

    If COTS is critical, it means there is no redundancy in the system, no parallel paths. No other markets.

    That is not true. Prompt Global Strike alone is already as large as what NASA’s planning to spend on COTS — and unlike COTS, Prompt Global Strike won’t go away when ISS is shut down after 2016.. When you add in all the other military missions that could be done by low-cost, highly operational spacecraft, you have a market that’s much larger than COTS.

    > COTS should not become a single-string experiment in pseudo-capitalism. Because if COTS
    > fails (for one of many reasons, some likely to be NASA’s “fault”), we will be stuck with yet another
    > round of reasons to be angry at NASA, instead of a growing cislunar economy.

    That is a good argument for *not* putting all our eggs in the COTS basket, Jim. No matter how many companies NASA picks for COTS, it will still be a single-string experiment by definition because it will be dependent on a single string (NASA) for funding.

    > NewSpace supporters need to identify and advocate for MANY more windows-of-opportunity for NASA
    > to enable and purchase commercial services. Lunar Comm/Nav is an obvious one, but there are others
    > as well.

    Of course there are others, like launching all VSE cargo and personnel — which the Launch Services Purchase Act already requires. Some of us have been saying that for years, Jim, while you’ve been telling us COTS is the only market Griffin has to give.

    In the meantime, Griffin has been gutting Centennial Challenges and backpeddling on one promise after another.

    We should advocate many more windows-of-opportunity but NOT for NASA because NASA CANNOT be trusted.

    Forty years ago, Kennedy killed off the first military spaceplanes (Dyna-Solar, Reusable Atlas, etc.) so that Apollo would have a monopoly on manned space. Now, the Bush administration is neglecting military spaceplanes for Apollo on Steroids. We must not allow that to happen again.

  • Edward Wright

    >> If a lunar lander is re-useable

    > Thats a mighty big if. Last I was hearing, although I haven’t been paying close attention, I got
    > the impression nothing was gonna be reused.

    Actually, Bill, it’s more like the thousandth time you’ve heard. I’m glad you finally decided to listen. :-)

    > It seems to me that NASA funding of the lunar hopper challenge through the X Prize
    > demonstrates a real interest in re-useable LSAM technology. Why else fund hopper development?

    Because not everyone thinks LSAM will be the only lunar lander ever built, or that the Moon will be the only place where VTOL is ever used.

    If NASA had a real interest in using Centennial Challenges to develop LSAM (or anything else), Griffin would be increasing funding for Centennial Challenges, not gutting it.

    > A single stage fully re-useable LSAM would be quite useful if combined with lunar LO2 production,
    > suborbital hops for exploration for example, as well as Luna to EML-1.

    It would be much more useful to have a reusable lander that was cheap, and small enough to be launched affordably instead of requiring a huge expensive Shuttle-derived ELV. It might actually get you to the Moon in your lifetime.

    It’s unfortunate that the Moonies and Marsies are dominated by fundamentalists who only want to quote their sacred books and shut their minds to any alternative approach that might actually get them where they want to go. :-)