The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

ISS illustration
Selling the US portion of the ISS to commercial interests will free up funding for lunar exploration and other programs. (credit: NASA)

The Dinkin Commission report (part 2)

7. Sell the US portion of the ISS immediately and buy out our obligation to the ISS partners.

Taylor Dinerman talks about some of the challenges associated with privatizing the ISS in his article in May. (See “Privatizing the ISS: international complications”, May 17, 2004). Many of these challenges are challenges of perception. My recommendation is to hold an auction for the US portion of the ISS immediately. Have the ownership be encumbered by US space program users for the next few years, but get the government out of the business of owning and operating the station. It might alienate our space partners to sell out our partnership interest in the ISS to private companies. That may be a high price to pay, but it is a low cost in dollar terms and a smaller betrayal than our allies beggaring us to take care of Saddam Hussein. I think the oil for food scandal at the UN demonstrates that if we give a portion of the proceeds of the sale of the ISS to our space partners, they will be more mute about criticizing our failure to live up to our international obligations in the space station. That is, money has a way of co-opting international principals. My recommendation is to basically do the opposite of what Paul Wolfowitz did in apportioning Iraq reconstruction contracts. Give a portion of the auction proceeds to our international partners as compensation for our withdrawal from the venture. Even with a very small auction revenue from selling the ISS, the main effect is to contain future losses and put the ISS into the hands of entrepreneurs who can put the ISS to valuable uses. Without any future liability for the ISS additional budget dollars can be freed up for lunar exploration, prizes and tax credits.

8. Discontinue the space shuttle immediately.

There is money in the budget that can be used to go to the Moon and Mars or can be used to keep the space shuttle program going. Pull the plug. Do not wait until you are out of office to do it. There is plenty of spare capacity to launch satellites on other launch vehicles. Write a check to the Russians to produce a few extra Soyuz crafts. Buy out the stakeholders that have reservations.

The shuttle’s track record is not so good. The cost to orbit is not so good. The value of the remaining flights is not so high. Use the billions that are saved (5, 10, 40?) for something else.

Much as it makes sense to stand with Robert Zubrin in saying we should risk people’s lives to service the Hubble, wouldn’t we rather use the money to design something safer and save the Hubble later, save the Hubble robotically, or just use the money to build an all-new Hubble and launch it some other way?

9. Focus on reusable infrastructure building of mature technology: communications and navigation satellites for Mars and the Moon, and bootstrap a heavy-lift industry by paying for supply dumps on the Moon, Mars and in Earth orbit.

The Aldridge Commission recommended that NASA develop a laundry list of technologies. NASA has shown us that their choices in technology developments have led to a dead end. The federal government should be stripped of all non-functional specification decisions. Technology choices should be removed from the realm of the federal government. Leave standard-setting, skunkworks, innovation, and invention to the private sector. The Department of Space Security should be a customer. It should enable space by buying proven infrastructure items that will be useful to other space users and customers.

Hold an auction for the US portion of the ISS immediately. Have the ownership be encumbered by US space program users for the next few years, but get the government out of the business of owning and operating the station.

The best way to do this is financially. The federal government can guarantee that it can help space development and private space transportation by funding a subsidy. By paying commercial space transporters for every pound of third-party payload they deliver, the space transporters will use the money for whatever support they need most, whether that is legal, engineering, management, advertising, or whatever. A direct subsidy is better than a tax break. A subsidy pumps money into space whether space firms are making money or losing money. Tax breaks only help firms that are making money. With strong entry in the early years, tax breaks will only help the ultimate winners. The tax break capped at five times investment such as the one recommended by the Aldridge Commission will discourage high-risk investments. If there are 100 ventures and one succeeds and is worth 1000 times the initial investment, capping the tax break at five times the initial investment will increase the total return by less than one percent. Low-risk projects would have money flood into them, however, so the cap may well not limit the taxpayer liability. For example, suppose all semiconductor manufacturing and pharmaceutical manufacturing moves off earth, but it cost 25% more for 100% certainty. That investment would be made if the tax break is big enough while the wildly-profitable risky investment would not be.

Another good way to support the development of space is to spend money on shared services that can be built and deployed cheaper by a single entity than everyone doing it themselves. Terrestrial examples are traditional public goods such as roads, bridges and ports. Examples for the space industry on Earth would be subsidizing launch facilities, good regulation, venture investment, and promotion of space activities. More far-sighted ideas for shared services are shared communications/GPS constellation around the Moon and Mars so that individual spacecraft can have the hardware of a satellite phone and a GPS locator instead of much more self-contained navigation and communications suites. If you cannot invent the space internet, at least you can build it.

What differentiates these technologies and services is that they are technology-neutral and service-neutral; useful for whatever propulsion scheme and whatever mission type ultimately gets launched. By investing in mature technologies, the high-risk, high-payoff technologies can be shifted to the private sector where innovation and creativity can achieve exciting fast developments.

To promote that technology development, the federal government should generously support space research on topics of the private sector’s choosing. There should be a general research subsidy.

Another good way to support the development of space is to spend money on shared services that can be built and deployed cheaper by a single entity than everyone doing it themselves.

The Department of Space Security should also undertake its own research program with the 10% of dollars that it does not spend outside the agency. Some of the 90% should be spent on directed research. Again, the research direction should be functional only. That is, questions like “How can I get to space for less than $100/lb” are OK. “Is a hypersonic airbreathing engine feasible?” is not OK. The research should be like DARPA or NSF. The Department of Space Security should take a light hand and leave it to customer organizations to pull relevant research from the private sector.

Two technologies where there is high leverage are affordable heavy lift and high-bandwidth communications. Space elevators might get there once they are proven.

Bootstrapping heavy lift might be a big win. By creating a depot for water, oxygen, hydrogen and other bulk items in space, the heavy-lift infrastructure can be juiced while making sure that the investment has some return. This fueling station also is a shared service allowing lighter lift for interplanetary missions and high Earth orbit missions. This was described at Space Access ’04.

In Earth orbit, high-bandwidth communication might be combined with spy satellites. If spy satellites became common carriers like the Boeing refueling lease-back deal where communications, private images, and other shared facilities of the spysats were used, ultimately a much denser system could be afforded.

page 2: refocus subsidization efforts >>