Friday, March 29, 2013

The Origins of Commercial Space

January 14, 2004 ... President George W. Bush announces the Vision for Space Exploration.

You've heard them. Read them. Seen them.

The people who claim that NASA was a perfect place where everyone had guaranteed jobs forever building wonder ships that would take American heroes back to the Moon and beyond.

Until Barack Obama was elected.

They claim that Obama destroyed NASA by imposing the commercial space program so he could give taxpayer money to political cronies like Elon Musk who bankrolled his election campaign.

It's all a fantasy, of course, but these people live among us here in the Space Coast, continuing to spread this nonsense.

Here's what really happened.

Commercial space originated not in 2009 when Obama took office, but in 2004 with President George W. Bush's Vision for Space Exploration.

On January 14, 2004, Bush gave his Vision for Space Exploration speech. He didn't mention commercial space, but in the detailed proposal submitted to Congress in February 2004 were the first mentions of transferring Low Earth Orbit access to the private sector.

Called The Vision for Space Exploration, the document had an introductory letter from NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe. He wrote that “NASA is releasing this plan simultaneously with NASA’s FY 2005 Budget Justification. This plan is fiscally responsible, consistent with the Administration’s goal of cutting the budget deficit in half within the next five years.”

The latter didn't happen, of course, but let's focus on commercial space.

If you download the PDF at the above link, you can use Adobe Acrobat Reader to find the references to the word “commercial.” On the seventh page of the PDF, you'll find at the bottom that one of the Vision's objectives was to “Pursue commercial opportunities for providing transportation and other services supporting the International Space Station and exploration missions beyond low Earth orbit.”

On Page 23 of the PDF (page 15 in the report) is this passage:

For cargo transport to the Space Station after 2010, NASA will rely on existing or new commercial cargo transport systems, as well as international partner cargo transport systems. NASA does not plan to develop new launch vehicle capabilities except where critical NASA needs — such as heavy lift — are not met by commercial or military systems. Depending on future human mission designs, NASA could decide to develop or acquire a heavy lift vehicle later this decade. Such a vehicle could be derived from elements of the Space Shuttle, existing commercial launch vehicles, or new designs.

Two pages later is this paragraph:

As we move outward into the solar system, NASA will rely more heavily on private sector space capabilities to support activities in Earth orbit and future exploration activities. In particular, NASA will seek to use existing or new commercial launch vehicles for cargo transport to the Space Station, and potentially to the Moon and other destinations.

In his January 14 speech, Bush announced he would “form a commission of private and public sector experts to advise on implementing the vision that I've outlined today.”

Eventually known as the Aldridge Commission for its chair, former Air Force Secretary Pete Aldridge, it was officially known as the President's Commission on Moon, Mars and Beyond. Their report was released on June 26, 2004.

The Aldridge Commission holds a public hearing in New York on May 3, 2004. Image source: University of North Texas.

Section III, titled “Building a Robust Space Industry,” argues for the creation of what today many call NewSpace.

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.”

NASA Administration Michael Griffin.

In November 2005, NASA released the Exploration Systems Architecture Study about seven months after Michael Griffin became the new NASA Administrator. Griffin became Administrator on April 14, 2005. The ESAS began in May and ended in July. According to the preface:

The ESAS Final Report presents analysis and recommendations concerning technologies and potential approaches related to NASA’s implementation of the Vision for Space Exploration. Project and contract requirements will likely be derived, in part, from the ESAS analysis and recommendations.

Within the verbose 758-page report are several references to commercial space. (Again, search the PDF for “commercial.”) Page 62 of the PDF (page 56 in the document) displays a chart for the ESAS Architecture Implementation Roadmap:

The ESAS Architecture Implementation Roadmap.

It states on that page, “Options for transporting cargo to and from the ISS would be pursued in cooperation with industry, with a goal of purchasing transportation services commercially.” The roadmap itself defines “Commercial Crew/Cargo for ISS” as a program running from 2005 through 2015, when the ISS would be retired.

In January 2006, NASA issued a release soliciting proposals for crew and cargo transportation to orbit.

NASA is challenging U.S. industry to establish capabilities and services that can open new space markets and support the crew and cargo transportation needs of the International Space Station.

For the first time, NASA is seeking non-government vehicles and commercial services to provide crew and cargo transportation for human space flight. The final announcement for Phase 1 of the Commercial Crew/Cargo Project invites proposals for Commercial Orbital Transportation Services Demonstrations. The companies or teams selected will develop and demonstrate the vehicles, systems, and operations needed to support a human space facility like the International Space Station. Once a capability is demonstrated, NASA plans to purchase these services competitively.

"This signifies a new era in space transportation with a greater role for commercial space providers," said Scott Horowitz, NASA associate administrator for Exploration Systems. "We look forward to being able to purchase services for routine access to space, as NASA explores the moon, Mars, and beyond."

In October 2006, Griffin gave a speech at the X-Prize Cup Summit. This was a landmark speech that defined the agency's commercial space doctrine as we know it.

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!

Griffin said that, “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.”

In January 2007, Commercial Crew & Cargo Program Office (C3PO) Deputy Manager Valin Thorn delivered an overview to the AIAA Aerospace Sciences meeting. Page 5 of the presentation states:

COTS Phase 1 Demonstrations are NOT contracts for products and services — They are similar to venture capital pathfinder initiatives with associated risk tolerance and potential high return on investment.

On Page 6 is a chart titled, “COTS Notional Schedule”:

The COTS Notional Schedule.

The chart shows an ambitious schedule not just for commercial cargo, but also for crew. COTS crew services would begin in 2012 and continue until 2015, “ISS Retirement.” It notes that Crew Phase 1 is “currently unfunded” and hopes that, “Potential funding start in 2009.”

That would be in the first year of the administration of whomever succeeded President Bush.

Mr. Thorn reported that two companies had already been selected for the first COTS Demo Competition — Rocketplane-Kistler and SpaceX.

So much for the Obama/political crony conspiracy theory. SpaceX was selected years before Obama took office.

Nowhere in Thorn's presentation is mentioned Constellation. At the same time as this presentation, the Ares I was also being developed to provide crew services to ISS.

Why did NASA have two programs, one government and one public-private hybrid, developing crew vehicles to go to a place that would be retired in 2015?

No wonder the GAO issued a report in August 2009 concluding that Constellation lacked “a sound business case.”

We have issued a number of reports and testimonies that touch on various aspects of NASA’s Constellation program and in particular the development efforts under way for the Orion and Ares I projects. These reports and testimonies have questioned the affordability and overall acquisition strategy for each project and have stressed repeatedly NASA’s need to develop a sound business case — which includes firm requirements, mature technologies, a knowledge-based acquisition strategy, a realistic cost estimate, and sufficient funding and time — to support the Constellation program before making long-term commitments.

This is what the Obama administration inherited when it took office. They would eventually propose the cancellation of Constellation, and use the savings to extend the ISS as well as prime the pump for commercial cargo and crew to close the “gap” after the Shuttle's retirement where the United States would rely on other nations for access to Low Earth Orbit.

Commercial cargo and crew were in place long before the current administration. Some have complained about the use of the word “commercial” to describe the venture capital approach, but that word was in the very first VSE report sent to Congress in February 2004, as it was in the June 2004 Aldridge report and the November 2005 ESAS document. It's been around for nine years now, and the notion of using taxpayer money as venture capital for nearly as long.

If you don't like it, that's your perogative. But place blame where blame is due.

UPDATE April 8, 2013 — I found on NASA's web site this November 7, 2005 press release announcing the creation of the Commercial Crew/Cargo Project Office.

NASA has formed the Commercial Crew/Cargo Project Office to spur private industry to provide cost-effective access to low-Earth orbit and the international space station in support of the Vision for Space Exploration.

Part of the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, the office is located at NASA's Johnson Space Center, Houston. NASA named Alan J. Lindenmoyer project manager. The office will manage orbital transportation capability demonstration projects that may lead to the procurement of commercial cargo and crew transportation services to resupply the space station.

The commercial sector will soon get an opportunity to provide these services. In testimony before a Congressional committee last week, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said, "Later this month NASA will issue a draft solicitation requesting commercial service demonstrations for space station crew and cargo delivery and return. Where commercial providers have demonstrated the ability to meet NASA's needs and safety requirements, commercial services will be purchased instead of using government assets and operations."

So if you're looking for an official “birth date” for commercial space, this could be it.


“Why Bush Cancelled the Space Shuttle” (March 2, 2010)

“When Bush Cancelled the Space Shuttle” (April 26, 2010)

“After Bush Cancelled the Space Shuttle” (November 28, 2010)


  1. Or as some of us might say, "give credit where credit is due."

  2. Good blog. Eventually Griffin came to oppose commercial crew as he saw it as a direct threat to Ares I. It would be interesting to have a blog as to why Griffin completed changed his stance.

    1. No he didn't. Listen to his appearance on The Space Show. What he came to oppose was the holding back of SpaceX so Boeing and Sierra Nevada could catch up, and the creation of a slow walk program to first crew flights which lacks any urgency and overpays for paper milestones. I think most of us who remember COTS-D being swept under the rug feel the same way.