White House

New national space transportation policy makes modest, not major, changes

After many months of delays, the Obama Administration quietly released Thursday afternoon a new National Space Transportation Policy. This is an update to the former space transportation policy developed during the Bush Administration and completed in late 2004. Both documents outline policy in regards of civil, national security, and commercial launch activities in the United States.

Many of the central tenets of the new policy are the same or similar as the 2004 policy (which, in turn, retained those of previous national policies.) These include assured access to space; use of US vehicle to launch US government payloads, with certain exceptions; and support for commercial space transportation in the United States. There are updates to the new policy to reflect NASA’s direction to develop “a heavy-lift space transportation system” (the Space Launch System is not mentioned by name in the new document) as well as commercial crew transportation systems and “other related capabilities” like on-orbit refueling and advanced in-space transportation systems.

A few other differences between the two policies worth noting:

The new policy emphasizes allowing for new entrants for launching US government payloads. The 2004 policy stated that, for “the foreseeable future, the capabilities developed under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program shall be the foundation for access to space” for intermediate and larger government payloads. The new policy simply calls for “to the maximum extent practicable, the availability of at least two U.S. space transportation vehicle families” without mentioning EELV by name. Both policies allowed for the introduction of new vehicles “that demonstrate the ability to reliably launch” such payloads, but the new policy specifically mentions the use of “established interagency new entrant certification criteria” for such vehicles, and any changes to such criteria would have to be coordinated between the National Security Advisor and the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The 2004 policy played up the development of “operationally responsive” launch systems, part of the push at the time for the broader concept of operationally responsive space. “Before 2010, the United States shall demonstrate an initial capability for operationally responsive access to and use of space to support national security requirements,” the 2004 policy stated. The new policy deemphasizes this, directing the Secretary of Defense to work with other agencies on “launch concepts, techniques, and technologies needed for augmentation or rapid restoration of national security space capabilities” without a specific goal or deadline as in the old policy, and without using the term “operationally responsive space.”

The new policy clarifies the launch of US government hosted payloads on commercial spacecraft. Previously, there had been uncertainty if such hosted payloads required a waiver from the White House if the commercial satellite that payload was hosted on was being launched outside the United States. The new policy explicitly states that hosted payloads, as defined in the policy, are exempt from the waiver requirement and can be launched on a non-US vehicle without one.

The new policy, in its commercial space guidelines section, includes a provision not found in the older policy to “Cultivate increased technological innovation and entrepreneurship in the U.S. commercial space transportation sector through the use of incentives such as nontraditional acquisition arrangements, competition, and prizes.” This mostly endorses current activities (notably NASA’s Commercial Crew Program); there are no current plans for space transportation prizes, although the FAA did propose a “Low Cost Access to Space” prize in 2011 that was not funded.

3 comments to New national space transportation policy makes modest, not major, changes

  • A good summary, parsing out the subtle changes.
    Derek Webber

  • Dark Blue Nine

    A limp update that makes no hard choices in an industry with vast oversupply and an unaffordable and uncompetitive decades-old infrastructure. Boeing’s endorsement bears this out:

    “Boeing applauds the president’s balanced approach to developing affordable commercial crew and cargo transportation in areas of proven technology, while he simultaneously accepts the challenge for the United States – as the world’s leader in space exploration…

    As we have for more than 50 years, Boeing supports NASA’s spaceflight endeavors, working with our customer to achieve affordable commercial crew and cargo transportation under NASA’s Commercial Crew program, as well as America’s heavy-lift rocket to beyond Earth orbit, the Space Launch System.”

    Translation: Great, we get to keep feeding out of both of these troughs!

    A real policy update would have made some hard choices between Shuttle-derived, EELV, and new entrants, shutting down one of those three legs. Genericizing references to SLS and EELV and adding flowery language about innovative propulsion and contracting techniques that almost never get funded doesn’t fix the industry’s fundamental problems and continues to pass the back to the taxpayer.

    I expected a lot better from Rich DalBello’s return to OSTP. If DalBello going to pass along pointless policy updates like this, he’s not earning his taxpayer-supported salary and should head back to Intelsat.

  • Charles Miller

    Thanks for the comparative analysis Jeff. I was thinking about doing this myself, but you saved me the time.

    Onwards and upwards,

    – Charles

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