Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX). Image source: Wikipedia.
Dear Senator Cruz —
To be honest, you and I share very little politically in common.
But this open letter is not to bash you, although personally I find much reason to do so.
My intent, instead, is to address the opportunity you have as the new chair of the Senate space subcommittee to help the United States create an entirely new economy based on opening space to the private sector.
I am hopeful that you might give this serious consideration. In the few times I've watched your demeanor during this subcommittee's hearings as its ranking member the last two years, invariably you have been respectful and deferential to Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), its long-time chair. Although I also disagree with much of Senator Nelson's space policies, his approach has been gentlemanly, sober and above rank partisanship. I hope you will continue his example.
The subcommittee has been renamed to “Science, Space and Competitiveness.” I am encouraged by the addition of a reference to competition, because I hope it is an indication that you will embrace the nascent commercial space era that's often called “NewSpace.”
Some of your Republican colleagues have bashed NewSpace, apparently because they identify it with President Barack Obama. That perception is entirely false, other than it's the Obama administration that finally took seriously a commercial space movement that began in the mid-1980s with the Reagan administration.
The National Aeronautics and Space Act was amended in 1985 to add subsection 102(c), which states:
The Congress declares that the general welfare of the United States requires that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (as established by title II of this Act) seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space.
An artist's concept of Leasecraft. Image source: SciencePhoto.com.
Few know it today but, in the early 1980s, the U.S. space program already had its first commercial astronaut. Charlie Walker, a McDonnell Douglas engineer, was designated a NASA payload specialist. He trained Space Shuttle astronauts to perform the Electrophoresis Operations in Space (EOS) experiments, and eventually flew three times himself. Walker performed early protein crystal growth experiments and acted as a test subject for several medical studies.
Fairchild Industries had planned to place in LEO a permanent orbital platform called Leasecraft that would be deployed and retrieved by the Shuttle. It would have been used to process pharmaceuticals and materials, and support NASA's astrophysics programs.
Leasecraft was scheduled to launch on the Shuttle in 1988. The orbiter would rendezvous with the platform every six months to collect experiments and deploy new ones. But for political reasons — mostly due to the Challenger disaster — commercial use of the Shuttle was phased out in favor of prioritizing strictly government uses such as satellite deployment and space station construction.
In the first decade of the 2000s, Republicans Bob Walker, Newt Gingrich and Dana Rohrabacher all pushed to reopen the door for commercial space.
Their opportunity came in the aftermath of yet another Shuttle disaster, this time the loss of the orbiter Columbia over eastern Texas.
The Columbia Accident Investigation Board report concluded that “the Shuttle remains a complex and risky system that remains central to U.S. ambitions in space.” The Board showed a distinct lack of faith in NASA, citing a cultural arrogance resistant to change or external advice. They also blamed “the lack of an agreed national vision” as an organizational cause for the accident.
In response to the Board's findings, President George W. Bush delivered his Vision for Space Exploration speech on January 14, 2004.
Today is the eleventh anniversary of that speech.
Click the arrow to watch on YouTube President George W. Bush's Vision for Space Exploration speech.
The speech focused primarily on retiring the Space Shuttle after the completion of the International Space Station, then starting a new program called Constellation that would return humans to deep-space flight.
President Bush failed to seek adequate funding for Constellation. As with most NASA programs, it fell years behind schedule and went billions of dollars over budget. That's why the Obama administration proposed its cancellation in early 2010.
But when President Bush's formal proposal was delivered to Congress in February 2004, it also planted the seeds for today's NewSpace movement.
The Vision called for NASA to increasingly rely on commercial transportation systems. NASA would no longer develop its own systems except where “critical NASA needs” could not be met by the private sector.
Bush appointed a “Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy,” chaired by former U.S. Air Force Secretary Pete Aldridge. The Aldridge Commission delivered its report on June 16, 2004.
You should read this. Click here to download the report. In particular, you should read Section III, titled “Building a Robust Space Industry.”
This is where NewSpace began.
June 16, 2004 ... Pete Aldridge and his commission hold a media event to release their report.
In their media event, the commission stressed their most important recommendation was to open space to the private sector.
To quote from the report:
The Commission finds that sustaining the long-term exploration of the solar system requires a robust space industry that will contribute to national economic growth, produce new products through the creation of new knowledge, and lead the world in invention and innovation. The space industry will become a national treasure.
The report called for “the breaking down of barriers to commercial and entrepreneurial activities in space, as well as a cultural shift towards encouraging and incentivizing more private sector business in space. Such a change in both perspective and posture is essential if we are to develop a broad-based, societal change in space business.”
The commission noted that “It is the stated policy of the act creating and enabling NASA that it encourage and nurture private sector space.” They cited a NASA program called the Centennial Challenge that gives cash prizes for “advancement of space or aeronautical technologies,” and suggested that “NASA should expand its Centennial prize program to encourage entrepreneurs and risk-takers to undertake major space missions.”
It was Bush's appointee, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, who approached entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk to participate in the commercial space program. In an October 2006 speech, Mr. Griffin stated, “In my first few weeks as NASA Administrator, I met with Burt Rutan, Elon Musk, Bob Bigelow, and other space entrepreneurs to hear their ideas.”
NASA's Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office opened in November 2005. SpaceX received its first NASA contract in 2006.
The commercial crew program was on the books from the beginning, but was never funded by the Bush administration because it focused on the Constellation boondoggle.
President Obama took office in January 2009. His administration appointed a new committee led by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine. The committee's report concluded that Constellation was not sustainable; in fact, an August 2009 GAO report concluded that Constellation lacked “a sound business case” and still had a number of unresolved technical issues. Even worse, Constellation was to have been funded by ending the space station in 2015. The ISS would be built only to splash it into the Pacific Ocean.
When Obama's proposed Fiscal Year 2011 budget went to Congress in early 2010, the administration proposed cancelling Constellation. The savings would be used to extend the ISS to 2020 and finally fund the commercial crew program.
Newt Gingrich and Bob Walker crossed partisan lines to support Obama's proposal, when they published a Washington Times column endorsing the President's plans to commercialize space. They wrote:
Reliance on commercial launch services will provide many other benefits. It will open the doors to more people having the opportunity to go to space. It has the potential of creating thousands of new jobs, largely the kind of high-tech work to which our nation should aspire. In the same way the railroads opened the American West, commercial access can open vast new opportunities in space. All of this new activity will expand the space enterprise, and in doing so, will improve the economic competitiveness of our country.
And there is the word that I hope you will embrace — competitiveness.
Congressional politics, unfortunately, underfunded Obama's commercial crew budget requests by 62% during Fiscal Years 2011-2013. That extended NASA reliance on the Russian space agency until 2017 for crew access to the space station. I assume you agree with me that reliance on Russia is not acceptable.
Senator Nelson and your predecessor, Kay Bailey Hutchison, felt it was more important to protect the existing NASA contractor work force in their states by replacing Constellation with a pork program called the Space Launch System. The SLS has been dubbed the Senate Launch System by its critics.
When NASA was created in 1958, it was not to direct government pork to the districts and states of those on space-related congressional committees.
That philosophy is a residue of the 1960s, when the entire nation was mobilized to prove to the rest of the world that American technology was superior to the Soviet Union. In current dollars, $150 billion was spent on “prestige,” a word that constantly appears in documents of the era.
In today's era of multi-billion dollar annual federal deficits, an Apollo rerun is not the responsible fiscal model for NASA in the 21st Century.
NewSpace has shown that the private sector is willing to invest its money in space exploration — and exploitation — if given the opportunity. SpaceX has provided NASA with a 21st Century robotic cargo ship at a fraction of the cost if it had been developed by NASA.
The grassroots advocacy group Tea Party in Space has a platform that calls for “the goal of permanently settling the space frontier by fostering private as well as appropriate government activities in space.”
To accelerate the opening of the space frontier and settlement of space, the United States government should form appropriate partnerships with the private sector to cost-effectively develop technologies. NASA, acting as one of the principal agencies involved in space settlement, will play a primary role in these technology development efforts.
If you wish to demonstrate American exceptionalism to the rest of the world, the best way to do it is to unleash American enterprise.
Ralph J. Cordiner on the cover of the January 12, 1959 Time magazine.
In 1961, the year President Kennedy proposed the Moon program for prestige, General Electric Chairman of the Board Ralph Cordiner published an essay titled, “Competitive Private Enterprise in Space.” Cordiner was a Republican, and would go on to chair Barry Goldwater's finance committee during the 1964 presidential race.
Even though GE stood to make millions off the Moon program, Cordiner warned of the consequences of a bloated government space program.
In his essay, Cordiner wrote:
Since the space effort will, for a long time, be primarily a research and development effort, this tendency could lead to an unexpected, and perhaps undesirable, build-up of government-controlled facilities. Looking to the future, when the space frontier has been explored and is ready for economic development, we might well find the area pre-empted by the government, which would then have most of the personnel and facilities available. This would leave the nation almost no choice except to settle for nationalized industry in space ...
As we step up our activities on the space frontier, many companies, universities, and individual citizens will become increasingly dependent on the political whims and necessities of the Federal government. And if that drift continues without check, the United States may find itself becoming the very kind of society that it is struggling against — a regimented society whose people and institutions are dominated by a central government.
Cordiner's warning came to pass.
You have an opportunity to change that, by embracing NewSpace and challenging your colleagues to cease using NASA as easy pork for their states.
Yes, you will get political pushback from those in Houston who get fat off Johnson Space Center contracts.
But you also have the nation's first privately owned spaceport coming to Boca Chica, built entirely by SpaceX private funding.
Which model do you think is the better one for the future of American spaceflight?
Thank you for your time.
UPDATE January 14, 2015 5:15 PM EST — Eric Berger of the Houston Chronicle published an interview this afternoon with Senator Cruz, asking a number of questions about the Senator's space priorities.
The Senator's web site also posted a press release today listing the Senator's space priorities.