Privately-Funded Space Research Leverages Scarce Public Funding | Commentary

Roll Call recently reported on Sen. Tom Coburn’s final “Wastebook” with negative descriptions of two of my company’s customers’ use of the International Space Station. Coburn went on to call for canceling the ISS entirely, which he claimed would save $3 billion, not understanding these two projects are mostly privately funded.

What the good senator and other readers of Roll Call may not realize is that ISS utilization is changing dramatically. For example, NanoRacks has invested millions of private dollars to enable more businesses, researchers and educators to use the incredible capabilities of our National Laboratory in Space. Instead of a traditional contract where NASA pays a company, we raise private capital to place new hardware on ISS and sell the use of that research equipment to organizations and companies worldwide so they can cost-effectively utilize ISS. Indeed, the two projects the Wastebook criticizes were primarily funded by the ISS users themselves, using hardware privately financed by NanoRacks.

In the late 1980s, I worked in the Office of Space Commercialization in President Ronald Reagan’s Commerce Department. Back then we were worried about whether NASA’s then-named Space Station Freedom would really achieve the potential that led the president to launch the program. I can report that we are starting to realize a commercial marketplace onboard this government-owned facility in low-earth orbit.

The Wastebook’s assertion that we should throw the ISS away because a commercial golf club company and middle-school science students invested their own money to use the ISS is wrong. Why wouldn’t we want taxpayers to use an asset they paid for?

Indeed, the very nature of the ISS program is changing. After all, NASA is not just a science agency. It exists to open the frontiers of air and space to the American people. Do NASA’s spaceflight programs — including the ISS — deliver a lot of scientific knowledge for the American people? Yes. But that is only one of NASA’s payoffs.

Today, America is taking a new pathway in human space flight, with a much greater role for the private sector. Thirty years ago, Ronald Reagan signed into law a change to NASA’s charter mandating that NASA “seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space.” It’s taken a long time, but ISS is becoming a global community of commercial customers across many industries, and yes, even reaching down into schools and universities. The ISS is more successful every day because NASA is embracing privatization and commercialization to address the very budget problems Coburn wrote about.

Specifically, the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program highlighted in the Wastebook is not a NASA project. This non-profit educational organization raises money from parents, community groups, businesses, and receives less than 10 percent of its funding from the NASA-funded Center for the Advancement of Science in Space. The educational organizations then pay to use NanoRacks facilities at ISS, with prices starting about $28,000 per project. This isn’t waste, this is main street America creating more public value from a unique asset Congress has funded. This is America at its finest.

As Jeff Goldstein, SSEP’s director, points out: “Those 15 experiments represent the culmination of 6,750 grade 5-12 students engaged in experiment design. Instead of passive ‘inspiration’, a small commercial company enabled a nonprofit organization and 15 American communities to actually use this National Laboratory in Space. Nearly 7000 students didn’t just watch astronauts on television, they got their minds working (and their hearts racing) figuring out what question they wanted to ask — and attempt to answer — about the unique environment of space.” All of this is made possible because Congress and the Administration have directed NASA to pursue a more business-friendly path for the ISS.

Of course, Congress is right to still question the high cost of operating the ISS, and to press NASA to make even more changes. As the pointy end of the ISS commercialization spear, I appreciate their challenging NASA to move faster. NASA is now looking at transitioning from managing its own space station to becoming a customer of privately-owned space stations. That’s critical to increase the return on taxpayers’ investments and also allow NASA to start opening up the rest of the solar system to Americans. By enabling more people to do something productive in space, NanoRacks is partnering with NASA to pay back the American taxpayer for the investment they have made in ISS. I would hope that everyone appreciates that in 2014, not all projects in outer space are managed and paid for solely by the government.

Jeffrey Manber is managing director of NanoRacks LLC.