Commercial Industry Role Critical to Future U.S. Space Progress

Posted July 17, 2009 at 4:45pm

In a very real sense, the die was cast on Capitol Hill for humankind’s first giant leap into the cosmos on May 25, 1961, when President John F. Kennedy went before Congress to urge support for “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth— within the decade. [IMGCAP(1)]Since that pivotal date, through triumph and tragedy, the legislative branch has been an equal partner with the executive in providing funding, oversight and direction to America’s bold space missions. The anniversary of the moon landing is a good moment to reflect on the best path for Congress for the future exploration of space.Forty years ago when the lunar module Eagle landed on the Sea of Tranquility, only the U.S. and Soviet governments had the ability to send humans into space. Today, there are several other nations involved in human space flight. And now, there is a burgeoning commercial space flight industry. Entrepreneurial private corporations can provide launch and cargo services, equipment and infrastructure for exploration, and economic activity throughout the inner solar system. Soon we will be in a post-space shuttle period when NASA no longer has the capability to launch humans in space. Congress should set policies to leverage the commercial space flight industry to help us through those years. Indeed, the involvement of the private sector is vital.NASA, as authorized by Congress, is committed to undertake full utilization of the International Space Station and the sustainable exploration of the moon, Mars and beyond. In August, the blue-ribbon panel (Review of U.S. Human Space Flights Plans Committee) tasked by President Barack Obama to re-evaluate NASA’s human space flight program will recommend specific architecture for future space activities. But in any case, it is essential to develop commercial space flight capabilities for reliable, affordable access to low Earth orbit for people and cargo. This will free NASA resources for exploration. It will jump-start private activity to lower the cost of access to orbit and unleash the full economic potential of space.In our everyday lives, America’s investment in space has already brought us satellite-based cable television, weather satellites, advanced materials and medical devices and microelectronics. Future space activities will accelerate progress in Earth observations, materials development and medical research. High-tech fields such as robotics, autonomous and fault tolerant systems, human-machine interfaces, and novel applications of nanotechnology will respond productively to the challenges of space as well.But NASA alone cannot be expected to guarantee such progress. The space agency is being asked to make a limited budget go far in exploration, scientific research and aeronautics activities. NASA faces a hiatus of several years in launching human crews. Commercial crew flights and cargo transportation to low Earth orbit must be encouraged so that we can productively utilize the International Space Station for scientific research. Commercial firms can provide alternatives to our dependence on Russia for transporting Americans to space after the space shuttle is retired. Indeed, we are on the cusp of achieving a substantial space economy leveraged off positive government action, something akin to what we saw with the commercial computer business 25 years ago. The commercial space flight industry is already in position to provide needed services to NASA and access to low Earth orbit. NASA’s existing Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program for moving commercial cargo to the International Space Station pays off for the taxpayer. Why? Because NASA’s work to develop commercial space transportation capabilities is augmented both by private investment and by advanced revenues from sales in other markets, such as telecommunication satellite launches. NASA can use either existing launch vehicles or vehicles currently under commercial development, like the Atlas V, Falcon 9 and Taurus II. Additionally, commercial providers will seek out new markets such as scientific research flights, national security missions and flights by private citizens, or “space tourism.— Increased volume will reduce NASA’s marginal cost of access to space. Further, the pay-for-performance aspect of COTS is an incentive to keep costs low. By tapping the private space sector, NASA will help to grow a new industry to create new jobs, develop cutting-edge technologies and strengthen American economic competitiveness. And as America plans its return to the moon for extensive exploration activities, the commercial space industry can prepare our next great leap with services like a commercially operable fuel depot in low Earth orbit. The industry can develop crucial lunar infrastructure: habitats, power stations, scientific laboratories, radio and optical telescopes, manned and robotic surface rovers, unmanned logistics and resupply vehicles, communication and navigation systems, and long-duration life-support systems. Recognizing that the support of the commercial space sector will result in significant savings in all future government-sponsored space activities and new markets for the American economy, Congress should advance a strategy for continued U.S. leadership in space that relies not only on NASA’s proven strengths, but also the capital and demonstrated initiative of the private sector.Former Rep. Robert Walker (R-Pa.) chaired the President’s Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry, served on the President’s Commission on Implementation of the U.S. Space Exploration Policy and was a member of the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board of the National Research Council. He is currently chairman of the Energy Department’s Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technical Advisory Committee.