Ever since the Obama administration’s rollout of its space policy two and a half years ago, conventional ideological wisdom has been turned on its head. An administration that had seemed eager to increase government involvement in everything from auto companies to health care proposed a more competitive, privatized approach to spaceflight, and people claiming to be conservatives blasted it, demanding that the traditional (and failing) NASA monopoly continue. Jim Muncy, a former aide on space policy to California congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R.), put it cleverly: “Democrats don’t think that capitalism works within the atmosphere, and Republicans apparently don’t think it works above it.”
How did this happen? The resistance suggests three primary motives: visceral distaste for anything that emanates from this White House; nostalgia for the “good old days,” when America had big goals and really big rockets and unlimited budgets; and, in the case of many politicians, pure rent-seeking for their states and districts.
#ad#Those guarding their pork held congressional hearings in which Apollo-era astronauts including Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan — the first and the last man to walk on the moon, respectively — expressed skepticism about companies that are privately developing space vehicles, such as Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX). These companies were, in Alabama senator Richard Shelby’s words, “hobbyists in a garage” who, according to Cernan, “didn’t know what they didn’t know.” (Who does?) Some Apollo-era types, among them Neil’s crewmate Buzz Aldrin and former NASA flight director Chris Kraft, disagreed, but they weren’t called to testify, and the critics ignored the fact that the companies proposing to privately develop new systems included Boeing, which has been involved in the production of every manned-spaceflight system in the past half century. Companies that have won government contracts were even compared to Solyndra, but there is no resemblance. There are no loan guarantees, and the companies are paid a fixed fee only when they pass milestones specified in their contracts. There has also been no obvious political influence: The contract under which SpaceX was compensated for a recent successful flight was awarded in the Bush administration, and Boeing — which has just won new funding from NASA (of which more below) — is not a prominent Obama supporter.
In addition to holding hearings, Congress took legislative action to resurrect the canceled Bush-era Constellation program, which was ostensibly designed to return men to the moon. On the recommendation of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board “not to mix crew and cargo,” the project had called for an Ares I “crew-launch system” (a rocket to carry astronauts into low Earth orbit) and an Ares V “heavy-lift vehicle” (one capable of carrying at least 50,000 kilograms of cargo). Constellation also included the Orion, a modern equivalent of the Apollo capsule and service module that delivered Armstrong and his crew to the moon in 1969. In the fall of 2010, Congress demanded that NASA reinstate Orion. It also dreamed up and demanded from NASA a new rocket called the Space Launch System (SLS), an Ares V–like heavy-lift vehicle. Although NASA studies have deemed the SLS unnecessary for space exploration, it is politically expedient: It would preserve part of the Shuttle workforce in Florida, Alabama, Utah, and other states with congressmen on the space committees.
Alliant Techsystems (ATK), the Utah-based supplier of the Shuttle’s solid rocket boosters, which are now intended for use in the SLS, tried to breathe new life into Ares I with a crew-launch system named the Liberty. Liberty failed to receive funding from NASA in previous rounds of the program, but ATK had reportedly continued its development with its own funds. Like Ares I, Liberty employs a five-segment solid rocket booster for the first stage, while the second stage uses a modified first-stage of the Ariane rocket, produced by the European company Astrium. Lockheed Martin will supply the crew capsule, using a stripped-down version of Orion (for which it is NASA’s contractor). With Orion reinstated and the SLS taking the place of the Ares V, the completion of Liberty would have meant the effective restoration of the entire Constellation program.
#page#The 2013 NASA appropriations bill highlights Congress’s skewed priorities. Frank Wolf (R., Va.), chairman of the subcommittee overseeing NASA’s budget, cut the administration’s $830 million request for crew-transportation systems by $330 million, hampering NASA’s ability to hire enough private builders to ensure U.S. human access to space. Congress nevertheless managed to find $2 billion for the unnecessary SLS. Wolf also demanded that NASA immediately select a single crew-launch-system provider (many suspected that he had ATK in mind) from its ongoing competition among private firms, and that it revert to old procurement standards, ostensibly to “save money” — this despite protests from NASA that these measures would have the opposite effect. Moreover, they would delay NASA’s ability — following the end of the Shuttle program — to launch astronauts into space. Currently, the agency is dependent on Russia for transport to and from the International Space Station (ISS), and for emergency evacuation (“lifeboat”) services, at a cost of more than $60 million a ticket.
#ad#But a funny thing happened on the road to space serfdom. On May 21 of this year, SpaceX sent its Dragon capsule into orbit. On May 25, 51 years to the day after John F. Kennedy set America the goal of landing a man on the moon, Dragon became the first privately developed vehicle to dock at the ISS. Six days later, it splashed into the Pacific Ocean, its cargo undamaged. For passing these milestones, NASA paid SpaceX a negligible $10 million. With the Shuttle retired, the Dragon is the only vehicle in the world capable of transporting hundreds of pounds of cargo both to and from space. It is now certified by NASA to start offering paid cargo-delivery and -return services later this year, and with the addition of a life-support system and abort rockets, perhaps as early as 2015, it will be able to carry a seven-person crew. With a few minor modifications, it could replace Russian Soyuz-series spacecraft as a lifeboat much sooner than that. Soyuz craft can manage only three crew members and much less cargo than Dragon. Most ISS crew time is now devoted to maintenance: Generally, of the station’s six crew members, only one at a time does actual research. The Dragon, by making it possible to expand the crew, could dramatically increase research time.
Dragon’s entire development process, design to launch, cost about the price of a single suborbital test flight of the Ares I-X, a partial prototype of the Ares I. Its success has apparently gone a long way toward allaying doubts about the competitive approach. It seems to have spurred Representative Wolf to abandon his demand that NASA select a single crew-launch-system provider. In June, he reached an accommodation with NASA to fully fund two private providers and partially fund a third. The awardees were announced on August 3: $440 million to SpaceX, $460 million to Boeing, and $212.5 million to Sierra Nevada. ATK and Liberty were left out in the cold, to continue with their own funding should they choose to do so.
This agreement may have sounded a death knell for the old ways: A Chinese-government official has expressed skepticism that his country, one of the most competitive government providers of launch services, can compete with SpaceX’s low cost.
Legislators may be able to waste funds on overpriced and unneeded rockets a while longer, but next year a new Congress, and perhaps a new White House, will need to find expenses to cut. After 50 years of a wasteful, politicized, government-run space program designed for the Cold War, it could usefully cultivate a competitive, innovative space industry that generates rather than consumes tax revenue.
— Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer, serial entrepreneur, and consultant on space commercialization. He blogs at Transterrestrial Musings.
Editor’s note: This piece has been amended since its original posting.