A human spaceflight program for the new administration
by Al Globus, Aaron Oesterle, Gary Oleson, and Dale Skran
|There is no reason to believe that a massive increase in NASA funding will occur in the foreseeable future. It makes no sense to plan for NASA programs that assume such an increase.|
Budgetary limits have kept a lid on the NASA human spaceflight program for over 40 years. NASA’s budget was drastically reduced after Apollo, but it has been fairly stable since then. The portion allocated to human spaceflight has also been held stable at about half of NASA’s total budget. The remaining half is divided among science, space technology, and aeronautics.
During the post-Apollo period, NASA’s human spaceflight budget has been able to afford one or two modestly-sized programs at a time. NASA was able to develop the Space Shuttle, then develop the International Space Station while operating the shuttle. NASA had to stop operating the shuttle in order to free enough money to begin a deep space exploration program now comprised of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion projects. The continuation of this approach to human spaceflight can only result in snail-like progress while eliminating the stepping-stones created by previous efforts.
There is no reason to believe that a massive increase in NASA funding will occur in the foreseeable future. It makes no sense to plan for NASA programs that assume such an increase. Fortunately, an alternative approach is already underway: commercial development of space.
Public-private partnerships have already made a significant contribution to breaking budget limits by massively reducing costs. Commercial enterprises are already delivering cargo to the ISS and will soon be transporting its crew, all without a massive budget increase. One of the rockets performing these services was developed commercially at about one-tenth the cost of a typical government program and is being operated at about one third the cost. These reductions are in line with the initial cost reductions seen in other industries that have gone from customized government development to commercial manufacturing practices.
|A government program to explore space that is seen as expensive and does not result in production of new wealth cannot be sustained. NASA needs a clear mandate to support commercial development of space in order to increase national revenue and lower costs.|
Cutting costs by factors of three to ten clearly allows a fixed budget to buy much more, but the breakthroughs do not end there. Growing commercial enterprises generate increased volumes of business that reduce costs and increase resilience, reliability, and responsiveness. Beyond that, enterprises that grow commercial markets are sustained without total dependence on tax revenues and can grow far beyond any level that government funds could support. This in turn can support technology development and industrial capabilities that go beyond immediate government requirements and can accelerate future government programs.
For all of these reasons, the growth of commercial space enterprises is key to accelerating human spaceflight. A government program to explore space that is seen as expensive and does not result in production of new wealth cannot be sustained. NASA needs a clear mandate to support commercial development of space in order to increase national revenue and lower costs. Supporting the commercial use of space is, therefore, the most important thing NASA can do right now to assure its own future and the nation’s future in space.
1. Actively support the transition from government to commercial stations in low Earth orbit (LEO). Current NASA plans call for ending all NASA activities in LEO when the ISS is decommissioned in 2024. The next administration must provide an assured path for ISS users to continue their work on future commercial LEO stations. Regardless of the exact end date of ISS operations, such assurances are a requirement to allow scientific and commercial usage of the ISS to develop. One possible plan is for NASA to use Space Act Agreements (SAA) to develop a “commercial wing” of the ISS with multiple competing LEO station providers. Eventually the “commercial wing” would separate and become the cores of future LEO space stations. The next administration should also ensure that the US National Lab on the ISS transitions to rented space in future commercial LEO stations after the ISS is decommissioned.
2. Maximize usage of commercial partnerships while avoiding government competition with the private sector. NASA must continue to build upon the significant successes of the commercial cargo and commercial crew programs in accelerating space capability development, reducing costs, and growing the domestic industrial base. By establishing firm, fixed-price, milestone-based partnership arrangements and acting as an anchor customer, NASA incentivized significant private investment in space transportation, a market otherwise dominated by government spending. As a direct result, the United States now has redundant domestic cargo transportation to space and, soon, redundant crew access to space for the first time, all coming at a fraction of the cost and time of traditional government-led development efforts.
|Ultra-low-cost access to space will provide tremendous benefits to US national security, create tens of thousands of American jobs, and could create a trillion-dollar space industry.|
The tangential benefits of this development are equally important. After years of being absent in the global commercial satellite launch market, the nation now dominates this market, infusing billions of dollars of private capital into the domestic space economy. Reduced launch costs are also driving a revolution in low-cost satellite technologies, with myriad companies developing new constellations for communications, remote sensing, and more. With broad, strong customer bases buttressed by NASA as an anchor customer, commercial firms are now investing in new capabilities to go beyond Earth orbit, to the Moon, and to Mars. Just as it has dramatically benefited from its partnerships with industry for access to the space station, NASA should continue to leverage these capabilities to the maximum extent possible as it structures its interplanetary human exploration efforts.
3. Expand the portion of NASA’s human spaceflight program directed toward support of US commercial spaceflight. A model for this already exists in NASA’s aeronautics program, a continuation of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) programs that enabled and supported the beginning of the US aviation industry from 1916 on. This commercial industry provided the industrial base for US military aviation in World War II and subsequent American commercial aviation and national security capabilities. A key to this effort will be for NASA to provide some services that industry needs even when those needs go in directions not relevant to NASA’s immediate missions.
4. Accelerate America’s achievement of ultra-low-cost access to space (ULCATS). One of the most important government functions is developing technologies that industry is not yet able to develop on its own. America’s entrepreneurs, with government support, have taken important steps towards aircraft-like access to space. ULCATS will provide tremendous benefits to US national security, create tens of thousands of American jobs, and could create a trillion-dollar space industry. Using the proven tool of public-private partnerships, as demonstrated by NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program use of “other transactions authority,” it is technically feasible and economically affordable to accelerate the achievement of ULCATS in America in a partnership between the government and industry.
5. Ensure a favorable legal environment for the development of space businesses and resources. In 2015, Congress passed and the President signed the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA). This bill provided for a favorable regulatory environment for space tourism while, for the first time, establishing the right of US companies to profit from the mining of resources found in outer space. The CSLCA was a watershed accomplishment, but tasks remain. Perhaps the most important is to establish a low-overhead, business friendly “supervising authority” that can license US companies to visit the Moon, Mars, and the asteroids and, while there, to obtain and process space resources for profit. An additional area that requires work is further reform of International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) so that new space services, such as space habitats and orbital re-fueling stations, are not subject to the same tight regulations as weapons systems. Finally, the right of companies to own intellectual property created on the ISS or government-leased space station facilities without special government permission or regulation must be established.
6. Establish development and settlement of space as a goal of NASA human spaceflight. Legislation had previously been introduced in the House as HR 4752 to implement this goal. The goal of this bill, which does not call for new funding, is to modify how the NASA budget is spent so that it more rapidly creates a self-sustaining space economy beyond Earth orbit.