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Space Beyond The Cold War

your flying car is 384,400 kilometers away
by Philip K. Chapman
Sunnyvale - May 30, 2003
The end of the Cold War has intensified the need to engage the engines of free enterprise. Absent a dire national exigency like the Soviet threat, NASA must compete for funding with other uses for the Federal dollar, and many of them are much more urgent. The NASA budget has therefore shrunk to well below 1% of Federal outlays, and there is virtually no hope of any significant increase. Sustained growth is possible only in the private sector, where it is seen as a boon to the economy.

Apart from other issues, the purpose of human spaceflight is to open the solar system to all of us, not just to civil servants. The appeal of the program depends on the perception that it is opening a new frontier where people can escape the increasing regulation of life on Earth. A centrally-planned, government-run program is incompatible with that vision. It cannot survive, because it contradicts a principal reason for popular support.

There are many other advantages to transferring responsibility for human spaceflight to private enterprise:

  • Commercialization could convert the program from a Federal expense to a source of tax revenues.
  • Corporations can grow exponentially because of positive feedback of profits from investments, a mechanism that is unavailable to NASA.
  • Corporations can make rapid progress because they can take risks that government agencies cannot.
  • A growing commercial program would create the constituency needed to avoid further cuts in Federal funding.
  • Human spaceflight can be a potent demonstration of US leadership, but the current NASA program sends the wrong message to nations struggling with the transition from command economies to democracy and free enterprise.

The extraterrestrial economy will be like that in Hawaii, where tourism and the export of pineapples are important industries, but not the reason most people live there. The gross Hawaiian product depends primarily on trade between residents.

Similarly, space entrepreneurs may begin by exporting goods and services to customers on Earth (the most promising candidates are space tourism and electric power from solar power satellites), but the real growth phase will begin when trade between people living and working in space generates a significant fraction of corporate revenues.

The principal barriers to expansion into space are firsty: the high cost of launch to orbit; secondly: actions by NASA that suppress competition from the private sector (4); and thirdly: a regulatory environment, especially in the UN General Assembly, in which capitalism and competition are seen as regrettable aberrations that we should leave behind as we venture out into the universe.

These are all correctable, but not within the institutional culture that has taken root in NASA.

How to Fix It
First of all, we must recognize explicitly that NASA has bungled human spaceflight. There have been many suggestions for reform of the agency, and none of them has worked. The only viable solution is a new Federal organization, one that sees its purpose as helping the private sector rather than flying space missions. For convenience, I refer to it here as the Advisory Committee for Commercial Enterprise in the Solar System (ACCESS).

NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, was a research organization that provided much of the knowledge base that brought us from the Wright Flyer to the Boeing 747 in 65 years. NACA did not try to run airlines. ACCESS should provide analogous services for human spaceflight.

There will be plenty for ACCESS to do. The proper functions of government include:

  • support for development of enabling technology;
  • sponsorship of facilities such as simulators and test chambers, available for rent by anybody;
  • funding for exploration and scientific research;
  • utilization of Federal buying power in creating initial markets for products and services;
  • subsidies and tax breaks aimed at overcoming barriers to investment;
  • development of a legal framework for acquiring, regulating and protecting property and other rights in space;
  • negotiations leading to international agreements that benefit US industry;
  • law enforcement;
  • search and rescue;
  • traffic and debris control;
  • protection of fragile environments in space;
  • military applications of space technology; and
  • provision for the security and, if necessary, the physical defense of US space assets and interests, public and private.

Some of these functions may require military personnel in space, but there is no need to transfer them from the USAF, USN or Coast Guard to a civilian agency. Any civil missions the government feels it needs should be flown in commercial vehicles by astronauts who are employed by contractors.

I recommend the following specific steps:

  1. Ground the remaining three shuttles permanently, as too dangerous and expensive to fly.
  2. Mothball the ISS and move it to higher orbit, where it is safe from reentry, citing the lack of shuttles as the excuse. Perhaps somebody will eventually find a real use for it.
  3. Set up ACCESS as an agency entirely independent of NASA, perhaps reporting through the Department of Commerce.
  4. Remove the line items for the shuttle and ISS from the NASA budget and use the money about $5.5 billion per year (5) to fund ACCESS.
  5. Have ACCESS provide immediate financial incentives for private development of human spaceflight, including economical launch vehicles (6) and corporate operations in space.
  6. Provide office and lab space for ACCESS at JSC in Houston, and transfer test facilities and selected NASA personnel to the new agency. Eventually, JSC will become a center run entirely by ACCESS.
  7. Phase out other human spaceflight activities in NASA over a five year period, and transfer the funding to ACCESS. NASA will be left as a smaller agency, focusing on aeronautical research, unmanned spacecraft and the space sciences.

A reform of this magnitude is possible only by legislative fiat. NASA will of course fight it by every means available, but perhaps the Congress will take the necessary action once it is realized that transfer to the private sector can make human spaceflight a source rather than a sink for tax revenues.

    1. Phil Chapman was born in Melbourne, Australia. He has a doctorate in physics from MIT, and was one of the second intake of NASA scientist astronauts, during Apollo. He has been active in the space advocacy community throughout his long career, including serving as president of the L5 Society (now the National Space Society) in the early 'Eighties. His principal research interests have included laser propulsion, solar power satellites and economical launch vehicles.
    2. In 2002, the Space Sciences Board of the National Academy of Sciences issued a scathing report on the scientific capabilities of the "core complete" ISS. It is available online
    3. This high-level committee was chaired by the US VP (Spiro Agnew), and included the NASA Administrator (Tom Paine), the Secretary of the USAF (Bob Seamans), and Nixon's Science Advisor (Lee Dubridge). The report is available online here
    4. An example: In the late 'Nineties, several small companies, financed by investors, demonstrated substantial progress in developing cheap launch vehicles for human spaceflight. NASA responded by funding a comparable but much more expensive project at Lockheed Martin, called the X-33. Since investors were unwilling to compete with NASA, funding for the small companies evaporated overnight. In 2001, after wasting $912 million, NASA canceled the project. By that time, some of the small ventures were bankrupt. Whether motivated by malice or by stupidity, the net effect of the X-33 was to crush private enterprise.
    5. This figure comes from NASA budget estimates - available here
    6. For example, ACCESS could stimulate investment in launch vehicles by offering a prize of $750 million (i.e., the cost of a single shuttle flight) to the first company to demonstrate routine, reliable launch of people to LEO, at a recurring cost below $500/pound.

  • Back to Part One of this Report

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