In an essay in Monday’s issue of the Wall Street Journal, Robert Walker and Charles Miller make a pitch to President Obama: complete the job he started in his first term in handing over space transportation entirely in the private sector. “Just as the government does not design or build automobiles, ships, trains or airplanes, NASA should not be designing, building or launching rockets to go to low Earth orbit,” they argue.
Specifically, they want the President to kill the Space Launch System, the heavy-lift rocket that emerged from the 2010 compromise about the administration’s policy, saying that those launches should be turned over to the private sector. “The U.S. private space industry has now succeeded beyond the imagination of most politicians,” they argue, citing successes with the commercial cargo and the fact that private industry actually has more experience in developing new rockets (Atlas 5, Delta 4, Falcon 9) than NASA. A “full privatization” of space transportation would make American industry more competitive, reduce costs for the DOD and NASA, and allow the space agency to focus more on cutting-edge technologies, they claim.
“Why spend approximately $20 billion to build an unneeded SLS super-heavy-lift rocket, for instance, when existing commercial rockets can carry payloads more often, efficiently and cheaply?” they ask near the end of the op-ed. One issue, of course, is that the SLS will launch payloads heavier than any existing commercial rocket. (That could be mitigated though multiple-launch architectures and the development of propellant depots, although Walker and Miller don’t go into that level of detail in the piece.) The other, bigger issue, is the political fight that would ensue if President Obama decided to cancel the SLS, upending the existing compromise reached in 2010 that includes support for SLS as well as commercial crew. Would the White House, dealing with bigger issues from the “fiscal cliff” to gun control, be willing to spend the political capital needed to push through Congress what Walker and Miller propose?