Of NASA and NewSpace
The “Fermi’s Paradox” of space access
At the crux of (specifically) the recommendations of “Unaffordable and Unsustainable”, and (generally) perpetuating North American human spaceflight lies one fundamental question: is COTS really the answer?
The Foundation contends that turning human LEO access over to NewSpace providers is the only way that the VSE can succeed. Otherwise, it will crumble before it even starts, as little more than another bloated effort to build another impossibly expensive, do-all government spacecraft.
And it is from this concern that arises what this author refers to as the “Fermi’s Paradox of Space Access”: specifically that:
then why have such services failed to materialize regardless of government support? If the promise and potential are so great, where are they?
This single question, for whatever reason, is often poorly addressed by NewSpace supporters, and poorly understood by space advocates and the interested public in general. Quite simply, the reason that relatively little private investment has been made in NewSpace at large is fundamentally a matter of investor obligations, or (in the jargon many engineers hate) fiduciary responsibilities.
While in the context of the space industry a private launch provider may be able to offer increased reliability at reduced cost, this means absolutely nothing to any potential investor that desires to maximize return on their investments. To secure the interest, confidence, and funding of people who manage other people’s money, it is not sufficient that an investment opportunity merely prevail over competing options in its own context; the investment must also win out over all other options, from other sectors as well. Certainly, no business case for investing in space access has yet been made that can realistically compete with, literally or figuratively, more “down to Earth” options. (I recall at this year’s ISDC the sobering remark from Robert Zubrin that, if you’re in this to make money, you’ve come to the wrong place…)
While private vehicles may indeed prevail over a NASA owned-and-operated system for LEO access, no one has yet made a convincing business case for LEO access in the first place: at least not one that’s competitive with terrestrial options. And while individuals may decide to put large sums of money into NewSpace companies themselves, such people are, to be sure, angel investors. Investment firms with greater resources at their disposal correspondingly have greater fiscal responsibilities, which extend far beyond the dream of opening space, and without that dream, investment in space won’t be worthwhile until multiple providers are already in place, and the sort of inexpensive access that’s required to develop new markets and realize the true potential of business on orbit can be enjoyed.
And it is this somewhat unfortunate reality that is central to the issues of private and public space programs; the issues of NASA and NewSpace, and the necessary relationship they must forge, preserve, and nurture to make the dreams of many a reality to all. These are the truths that, for some reason, are not yet widely publicized, the things not often said: but also the issues which lie at the crux of successful human space development.
In the context of large-scale private investment, the case for NewSpace funding is still, unfortunately, a non-starter. But for a government agency whose explicit mandate involves putting human beings in space, the situation is far different. When your business is space, investment in space is possible on a far larger scale. This is NASA’s charge. Yet the responsibility to invest wisely is no less present. While in the current day, the only large-scale organizational investments in space will come from those with an explicit mandate to access it, their choices must still be tempered both by history and the need for diversification. To this end, NASA’s task of developing the next generation of launch vehicles must avoid the bottlenecks and chokepoints associated with singularity, and a repeat of its own past. NASA must invest in economic sustainability and a diverse portfolio of options—else, the “gap” will never be permanently filled, and the scenario which Mike Griffin considers “unacceptable” will always remain a looming possibility, as it was during the shuttle era.
Minding the gap
Perhaps one of the most significant weaknesses in both the Foundation white paper and GAO critique of NASA, is that neither devotes any particular attention to “minding the gap” between shuttle retirement and whatever replacement or replacements come next.
However, this author would contend that the “gap” issue is hardly as serious as many seem to fear. While there seems to be a significant degree of preoccupation with ISS access from American soil, the station is, after all, international (in theory), and NASA can, at the very least, continue to purchase Soyuz flights for its astronauts until at least 2012. (While some contend that filling the gap is an absolute imperative, this author has personally yet to be convinced—this, however, is admittedly a view from the “cheap seats” north of the border…)
Perhaps a “gap” may be necessary in order to allow sufficient time for the development of a true revolution in space access. After all, the “time crunch” has largely been responsible for much poor work and poor decision-making throughout NASA’s history. But even should issues of “filling the gap” dominate decision making in this regard, it can be argued that no one has yet made the case that rapid development of new human spaceflight capabilities is something NASA is favorably positioned to do. Many NewSpace companies possess comparable expertise (expertise, to be sure, which exists in people, not companies), but merely lack levels of funding comparable to what NASA is willing to dedicate to its own vehicle.
As things currently stand, should NASA’s CEV/CLV (or a government-built variant thereof) fail to materialize, the gap will definitely not be filled. While many are confident that at least some of the current COTS finalists will eventually develop their concepts to fruition regardless of NASA support, it won’t occur at any expeditious pace without more resources. Conversely, should NASA fund the COTS program at a significantly increased level—or at least a modestly increased one, while perhaps re-evaluating its own in-house options in light of recent developments—the potential “choke point” of LEO access can be substantially widened. More avenues to space represent increased potential for success—and far greater promise for space development in the longer term than if only government access is available.
Opinions about the Space Frontier Foundation’s white paper vary—and concerns about its general quality and specific arguments abound. Yet regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with its recommendations, it is hard to refute that NASA is in trouble at present. The GAO’s report, while somewhat lacking in suggestions for improvement, is unequivocal in reinforcing the precariousness of NASA’s current situation. Surely, at least some change is in order.
Despite what some regard as the Foundation taking curmudgeonly “pot shots” at NASA, this author contends that such criticisms are absolute necessities, particularly at the present juncture. There exist many legitimate concerns about how NASA is implementing President Bush’s Vision—and if both the GAO and Foundation critiques fail to give pause to even the most enthusiastic supporters of NASA, the situation may be more dire than most fear.
The original recommendations of the President’s Commission are in the spirit of the great economist Adam Smith, who once remarked that governments have the duty of “erecting and maintaining those public institutions and those public works which may be in the highest degree advantageous to a great society”. To such ends, NASA should be providing for the establishment of capabilities that cannot be wholly capitalized by the private space sector, but which nevertheless hold the promise of creating significant wealth down the road. COTS is arguably the NASA initiative with the highest potential for economic reward in the long-term and redundant LEO access in the near-term. But its chances of success are greatly diminished without increased agency support.
No one who views human space exploration as an important goal wants NASA to fail in what may be the last exploration mandate of this generation. However, a program not based on redundancy and cost-effectiveness—a program not capable of paying off economically—is doomed to collapse beneath its own weight, at the expense of billions of taxpayer dollars, much wasted time, and our squandered hope.
The alternative, of course, is an evolving space program that maximizes private capabilities in achieving both redundancy and economy. Giving astronauts multiple paths to LEO—at reduced expense—gives NASA far greater latitude to fulfill its most important mandate: exploration of the Moon, Mars, and beyond.