One of the more interesting features of the Obama space policy is the plan to commercialize space travel between the Earth’s surface and low Earth orbit. The idea was that NASA would lease seats and cargo space on private, commercial space craft to send astronauts and cargo to and from the International Space Station.
The Obama commercial space plan was a revision of an earlier Bush era plan. The Bush commercial space plan would lease private space craft to carry cargo alone to and from the ISS. Once commercial space companies proved their ability to conduct routine space operations, then transportation of astronauts to and from ISS would be contracted out. In the meantime, the Bush plan would retain a “public option” of a NASA designed and operated space craft known as the Orion to be launched on a rocket called the Ares 1. The same system would be part of the Constellation return to the Moon space exploration program.
The Obama commercial space plan has three problems.
First, because there is no actual commercial space industry that provides launch services for cargo and astronauts to low Earth orbit, the government is going to have to help to create it, mainly by providing money to help develop launch systems and space craft that can be operated on a commercial basis.
The Bush approach, under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Systems program was to do this in two stages, as mentioned above, first cargo then passengers. The idea was that commercial space companies would be given time to develop actual operational experience before becoming true space transportation lines.
The Obama approach is to essentially go all in for commercial, spending six billion dollars to develop a commercial space industry in the next five years capable of transporting cargo and people to and from ISS. There are inherent risks involved in this approach, especially as the Obama administration proposes to cancel the public option of the Ares 1/Orion. The only other option will be to buy rides on the Russian Soyuz.
The second problem with the Obama approach to commercial space is a lack of attention to encouraging private markets for space launch companies. Some potential markets exist, including space tourism and servicing private space stations such as the one Bigelow Aerospace is working on. Indeed, the existence of private markets in addition to the International Space Station would increase the launch rate for private space craft, decrease the cost per launch, and ensure that there would be more players in the nascent private launch industry.
Inexplicably, the Obama administration is doing nothing to encourage private markets for commercial space. One idea it could pursue is one once put forward by Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, providing tax and regulatory relief for products and services created in space. The proposal, sometimes called “Zero Gravity, Zero Taxes” would make space an enterprise zone.
The third problem with the approach the Obama administration is taking to commercial space was revealed in recent Senate testimony by Apollo moonwalker Eugene Cernan. It appears that in a conference call with Cernan and Neil Armstrong, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden admitted that the Obama administration would provide a bailout for commercial space companies should it appear that they would miss the deadline of 2015 to provide space transportation services to and from the International Space Station.
The implications of this statement, which Bolden does not recall making, but Cernan made contemporaneous notes of, is little understood by the mainstream media. One of the ways that a true commercial enterprise works is that the knowledge of the cost of failure, i.e. to deliver a promised product or service in the time and for the cost promises, will result in the lost of the contract. Indeed, commercial space under the Bush administration worked that way, with Rocket Plane/Kistler losing its COTS contract when it failed to deliver. Participants in the COTS program knew that NASA had its own, in house solution to Earth to LEO transportation, in the form of the Ares 1 launched Orion, should they fall short.
But the idea that commercial space will get a bailout if it doesn’t perform effectively removes a major incentive to perform. With no “public option” in the form of the Orion/Ares 1 and with the prospect that failure would only mean that a commercial firm would just get more money from the government, one would wonder what incentive a SpaceX or an Orbital would have to actually deliver what was promised.
In conclusion, it would appear that the Obama commercial space initiative should be considered commercial in name only. Heavy government financing and involvement, coupled with a lack of firm private markets for commercial launch enterprises, combine to create the prospect of an industry whose sole function is to service government space launch needs, i.e. the International Space Stations, whose existence is dependent not only on that sole market but on government subsidies.
Sources: The Commercial Orbital Transport Systems Competition, Mark R. Whittington, Associated Content, September 2nd, 2006
Will Obama Really Commercialize Space?, Mark R. Whittington, Associated Content, February 21st, 2010
NASA to Get $6 Billion for Commercial Space Flight, Mark R. Whittington, Associated Content, January 28th, 2010
Toward the First Private Space Station, Mark R. Whittington, Associated Content, October 6th, 2006
Armstrong, Cernan Testify Against Obama Space Plan Before Senate Committee, Mark R. Whittington, Associated Content, May 13th, 2010