Tuesday, December 28, 2010

NASA vs. SpaceX

Michael Griffin was NASA Administrator from April 2005 until January 2009. His administration began the program to transfer supply of the International Space Station to the private sector.

Today's Orlando Sentinel has an article titled, “Can NASA Compete with SpaceX?”

I wasn't aware that NASA was in "competition" with SpaceX, especially since the SpaceX flights are funded in part by seed money from NASA's Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office (C3PO).

The NASA funds represent a relatively small portion of the money invested by SpaceX to develop the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon spacecraft. The reason NASA invested in SpaceX and other commercial options was to close the gap created in 2004 when President Bush cancelled the Space Shuttle program. It was recognized at the time that the Bush proposal, known as the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), created a minimum four-year gap starting in 2010 where the United States would have to rely on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to reach the International Space Station.

NASA began the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program in 2005, recognizing that as VSE siphoned money from other NASA programs the space agency would have to rely on the more efficient private sector to drive down costs.

Michael Griffin, the NASA administrator at the time, said at the X-Prize Summit in October 2006:

All of you here will be familiar with our new Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) demonstrations, being conducted under the framework of NASA Space Act Agreements. These landmark agreements are, truly, NASA's most significant investment to date in attempting to spur the development of the commercial space industry. But let me say this at the outset: NASA can do even better in partnering with the commercial and entrepreneurial space sector in carrying out our nation's Vision for Space Exploration. However, let me be equally blunt about the other side of the coin: "partnership" with NASA is not a synonym for "helping NASA spend its money". Just as with our international partnerships, I expect commercial and venture capital partners to have "skin in the game", contributing resources toward a common goal that is greater than that which could be easily afforded by NASA alone, while figuring out how to make a profit from it!

The SpaceX December 8 launch of their Falcon 9 which orbited their Dragon spacecraft was actually a COTS demonstration flight to show NASA the agency's investment had paid off.

I don't think SpaceX is in "competition" with NASA. SpaceX is in competition with the space-industrial complex.

President Eisenhower coined the phrase “military-industrial complex” in his January 1961 farewell address.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.

The "space-industrial complex" is the same phenomenon, only applied to NASA instead of the Pentagon. I can't claim to be the first person to use the phrase — Matthew Yglesias did so in the January 3, 2007 edition of The Atlantic. Yglesias wrote:

I'm not one of these "open outer space to more private-sector activity and we'll have colonies on Titan in seven weeks" people but it does seem to me that there's probably a sufficient mix of legitimate commercial uses for space and rich eccentric space enthusiasts (and, of course, there's the intersection of the two: providing space-related commercial services to wealthy eccentrics) to keep human activity going out there without giant subsidies to the aerospace industry.

And that's what SpaceX threatens.

The Orlando Sentinel recently reported that NASA will be forced to spend $500 million on the cancelled Constellation program because of a provision slipped into the Fiscal Year 2010 federal budget by Republican Alabama senator Richard Shelby, whose state hosts Marshall Space Flight Center. ATK, which makes the Space Shuttle's solid rocket boosters (SRBs), has a major operation at Marshall and also near its headquarters in Utah. Constellation attempted to use a variant of the SRB design for the Ares I; a 2009 Air Force report concluded an SRB failure could kill astronauts, just as the SRB failure killed the Challenger crew in January 1986.

Is there a more obvious example of the “disastrous rise of misplaced power” in the government's space program than the unacceptable risk of astronaut deaths?

Sure, the day will come when crew die on a commercial flight. Hopefully that "bad day" is far in the future. But accidents still happen with automobiles and airplanes. No one argues that operation of cars and planes should be restricted to the government.

SpaceX is in competition with a powerful status quo, an unholy alliance of politicians, government bureaucrats, and contractors who rely on government contracts to stay in business. When the day comes that SpaceX is ready to fly crew in its Dragon spacecraft, will politicians like Shelby try to pass legislation forbidding the government from using private vehicles? Just how desperate are they to protect their pork?

My suspicion is that SpaceX will become part of the space-industrial complex, making generous campaign contributions to the Shelbys as part of the cost of doing business. It's a sad commentary on the current state of American space flight, but at least it will break up the government monopoly on access to space.

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