A Twinkle of Hope

Obama has moved space policy in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go.

(Page 2 of 3)

This bad policy gets perpetuated because most people on Capitol Hill, members and staff alike, are too busy with more important matters than space and tend to defer to colleagues who compete for space-committee assignments so that they can keep the pork coming. The situation has been aggravated by the Obama administration’s political missteps. Despite adopting the best space policy in years, perhaps ever, it blundered in rolling out the changes and remains inarticulate, confused, and confusing in explaining them, allowing obfuscation by supporters of the status quo to go largely unchecked. It is ironic that an administration otherwise hell-bent on increasing government ownership and control in so many other aspects of American life would be the one that finally came up with a policy designed to privatize a function that has long been performed by a government agency, with the explicit goal of encouraging competition. 

Onward and Upward 

Can space policy be fixed? Not without the national will to do so. It would take either real visionaries making policy decisions or some sort of existential crisis (e.g., an asteroid with our number on it) to break out of the policy logjam. But the chances of the former are not as low as one might think. Had Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas) not switched parties seven years ago while being allowed to keep his seniority, the 88-year-old defender of the status quo would not be the current chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. Instead the chairmanship would have fallen to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), who has defended the administration’s space policy. Rohrabacher will almost certainly take over when Hall retires or is term-limited out in five years. If Newt Gingrich by some miracle wins the GOP presidential nomination and the White House, he would be the most space-conversant commander in chief in American history. So the stars might yet align.

What would a visionary space policy look like? It would have to be a radical departure from the monopsonistic Apollo model, in which the government is the only customer for a single major system, with no redundancy or backup. Ignoring the absurd 2010 law requiring NASA to develop the SLS, the end of the space shuttle provides an opportunity to get NASA out of the launch business and scale back to its original form, before the distorting space race of the early 1960s. Originally, NASA concentrated on basic technology development for aviation and space, just as its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), had for aviation. The NACA had industry as a customer, soliciting needs from the companies and performing useful basic research that advanced aviation as a whole. NASA’s original charter, the Space Act, does not mention developing or operating vehicles to send humans into space. In fact, as amended in the ’90s, it calls for the agency to promote and utilize commercial enterprise wherever possible. 

We need a policy that encourages innovation, entrepreneurialism, competition, and the creation of the markets that drive all of those things. There are three key elements to making this happen: smarter procurement, smarter regulations, and the overdue recognition of property rights. 

First, if the government is going to be involved at all, it should be a better and smarter customer. There is historical precedent for this.

Early last century, Congress passed and the president signed into law the Kelly Act, a.k.a. the Air Mail Act of 1925. The idea was to take a service that the government needed anyway (moving mail from points A to B) and use it to encourage the foundation of a new industry, in this case aviation. In the late 1920s, this legislation, along with NACA’s technology research, provided key support for the development of fledgling airlines. If we believe that it is important to create a cost-competitive space transportation industry, and if we think that we should be sending humans beyond low Earth orbit (which, as the late science fiction writer Robert Heinlein famously said, is “halfway to anywhere”), the air mail experience offers a blueprint.

NASA has already demonstrated the potential cost-effectiveness of such an approach with the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, which is on the verge of developing two new providers of cargo services to the International Space Station (ISS), using fixed-price milestone-based contracts under which the contractor isn’t paid until the milestone is achieved. In an appendix to a Spring 2011 report to Congress, the agency noted that for less than $300 million in taxpayer money, NASA had encouraged the creation of an entire new launch capability and a recoverable pressurized capsule, allowing it to have cargo delivered reliably to and from the ISS for much less money. The traditional NASA/Air Force cost-estimating models predicted that the new systems would cost from three to 10 times more than they eventually did, because the models assumed traditional cost-plus contracts. NASA could build on this recent success by extending the milestone concept from space station cargo to space station crew delivery and then to a much larger market.

There is another market that could serve for the space industry the same role that mail did for aviation. For a mission to deep space, the vast majority of the launch payload is propellant. The giant Saturn V that delivered astronauts to the moon in the 1960s was so big because it had to lift all the propellant needed to get the astronauts to the lunar surface and back in a single flight. NASA did it that way because it was in a hurry to beat the Russians to the moon and had no experience with orbital assembly or propellant storage and transfer in space. But today, having decades of experience with such things, we can do it smarter. 

In mid-October, a leaked internal NASA briefing showed (no doubt to the dismay of those insisting that NASA build the SLS) that using propellant depots in low Earth orbit for deep-space missions would save the nation tens of billions of dollars by eliminating the need for a very expensive Saturn V–like vehicle. Instead, the propellant could be delivered on multiple flights of existing commercial rockets, as could all of the hardware. 

Beyond saving taxpayer money, this approach would create a market for competing launch providers, driving up flight rates (which is essential to reducing per-flight costs on a system with high fixed costs) and driving down the price per pound of payload delivered to orbit. Most of the current cost of spaceflight is due to massive fixed costs. Low flight rates mean high average per-flight costs. But beyond reducing costs for existing systems, it would create an excellent market for new providers with untested systems, both reusable and expendable, because unlike an expensive satellite, the payload itself would be little missed if it didn’t make it to orbit (propellant costs about as much per pound as milk). Even small vehicles could play, because propellant is almost infinitely divisible. 

As the air mail market did for airlines, the need for propellant could jumpstart a robust and affordable space transportation industry that would finally, after years of failure, open up possibilities for wealth creation off planet. More important, the creation of a market for rocket propellant in space would lead to the development of off-planet resources to provide it (e.g., using the abundant water that NASA probes are increasingly finding on the moon or in other bodies). This will further drive down the cost of accessing and inhabiting the inner and outer solar system.

The second leg of the space policy stool is smarter regulation to encourage entrepreneurship and accept risk. For instance, current law prevents the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Space Transportation (FAA-AST) from regulating the safety of passengers aboard spacecraft; it is constrained to regulating only those issues that affect uninvolved third parties. The hand of the state has rested lightly on the space industry so far, thanks to that 2004 law, which imposed an eight-year moratorium on regulation. The view at the time was that until private space passenger vehicles actually took flight, the industry was too poorly understood to intelligently regulate. The moratorium is about to expire, and the House is willing to extend it to cover another eight years after flights begin. But the Senate is resisting the extension, demanding stricter regulation while simultaneously seeking to cut the budget of the FAA-AST. If the stalemate continues, the industry could wind up regulated out of existence before it even gets off the ground.

The other area where regulatory underbrush needs to be cleared is the International Trade in Arms Regulations (ITAR), which complicates selling U.S. space hardware overseas and restricts Americans’ ability to even discuss the technology with foreign nationals. Since 1999, when all satellites, regardless of their use, were classed as munitions, and control of the munitions list was moved from the Department of Commerce to the State Department, the international exchange of parts and ideas in the space trade has been choked off by bureaucracy. Meanwhile, U.S. space companies have lost billions to foreign providers as satellites made in other nations fill the sky via foreign launchers. Another result of ITAR’s restrictions is that U.S. space firms must undergo a long, painful process to hire foreign nationals, including workers from that well-known nest of spies north of the border in Canada. There are periodic attempts to reform the law, including the introduction of a bipartisan House bill by Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) in early November, but as of this writing ITAR’s extreme and often irrational strictures remain in place.

But reducing space transportation costs through smarter procurement and regulations is not enough. To utilize extraterrestrial resources, we have to create a legal environment in which commercial operations can flourish. 

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Tim||

    " A lively trade in lunar property " which lead to the economic collapse of 2034...

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    We achieved John F. Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him to Earth before the decade was done, but in doing so we created a space...monster.

    And I for one welcome our new space monster overlord.

  • Auric Demonocles||

    Never!

    "I still have a trick or two up my sleeve. Watch as I fire upwards through our own shield! "

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    "Increase speed, drop down and reverse direction!"

  • Auric Demonocles||

    "I could never get the last one! My brother always got it for me!"

  • ||

    Give me a Rush mix tape and a bottle of Shasta!

  • ||

    "Good evening, ignorant pigs. Put down your crack pipes and your beer bongs and pay attention, as I sign a historic peace accord with ambassador Kong of planet Nintendo 64."

  • "Furious" Styles||

    OT: http://tinyurl.com/87tcvuv

    "OK, 'fess up — some of you know that I thoroughly detest libertarianism, that reactionary political movement that seeks to elevate greed and selfishness as a ruling principle, and I suspect one of you got me a subscription to Reason magazine a few months ago, just to taunt me. If your goal was to persuade me to come over to the side of unbridled anti-social self-centeredness, you failed. The issue comes, I glance through it, find a few little bits and pieces I can agree with, but because they're all imbedded in this thick tarry fecal sludge of libertarianism, I end up throwing the whole thing away in disgust."

  • Tman||

    Cool story bro.

  • ||

    Maybe you should start a newsletter.

  • Donna Noeit||

    RACIST!!

  • tarry fecal sludge||

    Cool band name bro.

  • John Tagliaferro||

    I suspect one of you got me a subscription to Reason magazine a few months ago, just to taunt me.

    Just a ploy to get you on all of those other strange snail-mail marketing lists.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    PZ Myers is one of those people who thinks he's Smarttm because he learnt a lot about squids and got a few initials after his name, thus he feels qualified to bloviate about everything and anything.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Make that "Smart(tm)"

  • ||

    How about Smart™?

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    I tried the tag but I guess I fucked it up.

  • Teh rael MNG||

    because he learnt a lot about squids and got a few initials after his name, thus he feels qualified to bloviate about everything and anything

    That does make him more qualified, you ignorant buffoon!

  • ||

    Then get thee self over to Huffington Post righ away and hang out with the other illiterate fools that believe the government should provide everything for you.

    vejo você mais tarde, espero que nunca, idiota

  • Alan Vanneman||

    Three pages on what's wrong with the U.S. human spaceflight program? The problem is that it exists! Human space flight, as many commenters have pointed out in response to Reason's "other" space flight article today, is massively impracticable. The magic of the marketplace doesn't give us everything we want. Where's my jet pack? Where's my anti-aging pill? My Leo DiCaprio look-alike pill? My flawless replica of Angelina Jolie robot? Why aren't these products on the market? Are you telling me there's no demand?

  • ||

    Why don't you shut the fuck up Vannemen. There have been humans in space for 50 years now. It is hardly impractical. And there is a way that impractical things become practical, it is called technological advance.

    You really are the biggest douchebag ever to post on Reason. Don't you have a new Sherlock Holmes story to write or something?

  • Bingo||

    I dunno John, there are good reasons to be skeptical about space travel in general.

    Great article from sci-fi author Charles Stross about the impracticality of it: http://www.antipope.org/charli.....redux.html


    The moon is about 1.3 light seconds away. If we want to go panning the (metaphorical) rivers for gold, we'd do better to send teleoperator-controlled robots; it's close enough that we can control them directly, and far enough away that the cost of transporting food and creature comforts for human explorers is astronomical. There probably are niches for human workers on a moon base, but only until our robot technologies are somewhat more mature than they are today; Mission Control would be a lot happier with a pair of hands and a high-def camera that doesn't talk back and doesn't need to go to the toilet or take naps.

    When we look at the rest of the solar system, the picture is even bleaker. Mars is ... well, the phrase "tourist resort" springs to mind, and is promptly filed in the same corner as "Gobi desert". As Bruce Sterling has puts it: "I'll believe in people settling Mars at about the same time I see people settling the Gobi Desert. The Gobi Desert is about a thousand times as hospitable as Mars and five hundred times cheaper and easier to reach. Nobody ever writes "Gobi Desert Opera" because, well, it's just kind of plonkingly obvious that there's no good reason to go there and live. It's ugly, it's inhospitable and there's no way to make it pay. Mars is just the same, really. We just romanticize it because it's so hard to reach." In other words, going there to explore is fine and dandy — our robots are all over it already. But as a desirable residential neighbourhood it has some shortcomings, starting with the slight lack of breathable air and the sub-Antarctic nighttime temperatures and the Mach 0.5 dust storms, and working down from there.
  • ||

    It is a long ways away. But I would never write it off as totally impractical. At some point in time man will do it. Man has to. The earth only has so many years left. Of course, the good news is we have a few billion years to figure it out.

    Maybe from a Christian perspective, God will return and end the earth before we figure it out. We live such short lives on the cosmic scale it is hard to know. What is a hundred thousand or even a million years to the universe?

  • ||

    He actually says almost the same thing in Saturn's Children, too, in explaining why space travel fucking sucks even for androids.

  • ||

    Ultimately I guess transhumanism is the necessary step towards space travel. Our bodies are not cut out for such things. So why not get new bodies?

  • ||

    I agree with you 100% on that, John. And it completely changes space travel from "so difficult and impractical so as to be effectively impossible" to "difficult and impractical, but doable".

  • Tman||

    This idea was explored in Macroscope by Piers Anthony (it was nominated for a Hugo that year). It's one of the best Anthony novels he wrote before he started writing the kind fantasy novels.

    In the novel they essentially build a device reducing their bodies to a liquid state, which then allows them to accelerate past the speeds that would normally destroy our physical bodies.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macroscope_(novel_by_Piers_Anthony)

  • ||

    Hey look guys, Tman just said something good about Piers Anthony! What a jerk!

  • Tman||

    I enjoyed the Incantations of Immortality. series.

    There, I admit it.

    Of course I was twelve when I read them, but still, I did enjoy it. I'm not ashamed.

  • ||

    I did the same thing, but I have the decency to be ashamed.

    (not really)

  • Tman||

    It does baffle me that it's the same guy who wrote Macroscope and the Xanth series.

  • ||

    I can't for the life of me remember the title, and looking up his bibliography isn't helping, but didn't he write a series of novels that started with a game that all the poor people can play, and the one winner each year (?) is given just enough money (it was in the form of some precious material) to be at the very bottom rung of the upper classes, and then tries to make it from there? And the main character wins right at the beginning of the first book?

    I recall thinking that was pretty good at the time, but I can't even confirm it was Anthony.

  • Tman||

    I've read most of his stuff, but I don't remember that plot set up. Might have been someone else.

    (I might be ashamed that I read most of the Xanth series, but again I plead age ignorance -I was twelve man! I didn't know any better!!!)

  • Tman||

    (actually, I just checked, I only read the first 11 of the Xanth series. Apparently that's when I figured out how certainly biological functions work and naked Unicorns just weren't getting it done I suppose).

  • ||

    Xanth started out dumb, and after a few books, went FULL RETARD. Terrible. Those books are what made me hate him, Robert Jordan-style.

  • ||

    I think it was called Juxtaposition or something like that.

    IIRC the poor guys had to run around naked as they were not allowed to have clothing. And they had to compete in everything from the high jump to violin playing. If that isn't weird enough there was an alternate fantasy world the protagonist would go to (I forget how) where he could perform magic by singing in rhymes.

    No I did not just make that up.

  • ||

    That was it. Apprentice Adept series. Good call, dude.

    Yeah, I read it when I was really young so my recollections of "pretty good" might be a little off.

  • Tman||

    Funny, I picked up a Xanth novel a few years ago and within about five minutes managed to question everything I at one time believed was good about science fiction.

    I wonder if people have the same feeling with the Harry Potter series?

  • T||

    Phase something? Yeah, I read them all. The first three Xanth books were good. After that it was an excuse to write horrible puns.

    I gave up on Piers halfway through Incarnations and Bio of a Space Tyrant and haven't looked back. Any comments are tinged with 25 years worth of nostalgia.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    It's worth noting that Charles Stross is a Brit, i.e. a descendant of those Europeans who felt it was not worth emigrating to those "few acres of snow" known as North America.

    As I've argued before, those who first travel and colonize space won't be doing it for any "rational" reasons. They will be motivated by political or religious ideology.

  • Fatty Bolger||

    Voltaire was French.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    descendant of those Europeans

    France is not in Europe?

  • ||

    I would agree with this line of thinking. Historically colonists leave for religious or ideological persecution, real or perceived. Whether it will be materially better isn't as much of a concern provided certain basics are provided. This is the main reason why there was so much English colonization compared to other countries, even those with more of an incentive to exploit the potential resources.

    While the moon and Mars are less hospitable than any place on Earth, they also are less governed.

  • 0x90||

    You missed the point, which was correct. Just because a thing exists, it does not follow that it is, or ever was, practical, or that it would have occurred regardless of the injection of force into the equation. When that force is removed, it becomes possible to make this determination.

    Which is to say that the effect of force is to a) bring into existence things which should not exist, or b) to skew the time-to-market of things which should.

  • Fatty Bolger||

    Clearly human space flight is not impracticable, considering that there are half a dozen people on the space station right now.

  • John Tagliaferro||

    By any reasonably objective measure, U.S. human spaceflight policy is an awful mess.

    Deaths per passenger mile still looks pretty good.

  • ||

    Round and round we go.

  • ||

    "Some would say that the Earth is our moon."

  • ||

    But do not believe in those false choices.

  • At Last Shrugged||

    DRINK!

  • BakedPenguin||

    "But that would belittle the name of our moon, which is: the Moon."

  • A Serious Man||

    While I agree there's no sense in wasting billions in sending astronauts up, I do like the idea of the James Webb Space Telescope since it's poised to give us an unprecedented look at deep space.

  • Joe||

    Nothing to show? How about technology?

  • Tony||

    It is definitely impractical for people who, because of the constraints of a peculiar dogma, are not allowed ever to pool their resources for purposes other than the protection of property and a couple other narrow-minded concerns.

    Granted, purely speaking of human exploration of space, the program hasn't been terribly productive for its cost, but how many innovations have come from that research that created new industries and improved the quality of life for human beings? Pooling resources for the purpose of scientific advancement is one of the most useful things governments do and perhaps the most important infuser of productivity and progress in markets.

    The libertarian world, where such things aren't allowed because of a terribly misguided (and crankily selfish) definition of freedom, is a dismal place. The ability of markets on their own to innovate is wildly overstated--almost every major innovation of the last century or two (and the industries that they spawned) had help, or was outright created, from an initial investment of government dollars. No matter what advances come in space exploration or space science, you will never be able to say a laissez-faire market delivered them. The laughably inept Ayn Rand worldview is a childish thing, and isn't it about time to put it away?

  • Tman||

    Allow to speak for everyone for a minute if I may.........

    STFU Tony.

  • Tony||

    Nobody's forcing you to believe in childish bullshit. Life is so much better over here, where things like railroads, highways, space travel, the microchip, the Internet, not dying in a smallpox pandemic, and countless other wonderful things are not disallowed under the iron fist of free market dogmatism. You have nothing to offer but empty promises of utopia, like every cult. Why do you guys not see this? How can you believe in such a specific fringe stuff and not ever question why it doesn't catch on? More fundamentally, how can you know it's true when, because it never really catches on, it's never been tested? That's irrational belief right out of the gate.

    How frustrating it must be to have to believe that academia is in a giant conspiracy to oppress you, rather than simply acknowledge that you hang onto an untenable philosophy.

  • Tman||

    Nobody's forcing you to believe in childish bullshit.

    But yet you lap it up like a good dog, don't you tony?

    yesyourareagooddoogtony.....yesyouare....now go fetch me that copy of the federalist papers so I can hit you with them.

  • Tony||

    Sorry but you don't get modern American libertarianism from the Federalist Papers, seeing as how they were written before modern capitalism existed, and were a treatise on how to make a bigger and stronger federal government, and were opposed to enumerating the Bill of Rights. I can list the ways in which the Federalist Papers specifically contradict the tenets of libertarianism. They're almost a direct refutation of it!

  • ||

    Jeez, man... there are gross externalities to feeding the trolls. Just don't do it. Please don't do it.

  • Tony||

    I don't think I've been remotely trollish... though substanceless insults and other childish behavior might qualify.

    If I'm here for any reason it's to get some kind of a grasp on how living in an intellectual bubble can possibly appeal to people.

  • T||

    though substanceless insults and other childish behavior might qualify.

    Such as:

    peculiar dogma

    terribly misguided (and crankily selfish)

    worldview is a childish thing

    childish bullshit

    irrational belief

    Mote, beam, etc, etc.

  • Tony||

    Those are not empty name-calling, they are accusations backed up with explanation. A dogma is a specific thing, and libertarianism is it. Childish might be taking license but at some point one must realize that most normal people stop finding Ayn Rand interesting sometime in high school.

  • Tman||

    Yeah, I should know better. It's just that this version of Tony is so much more annoying than past versions.

    It's tough sometimes to just ignore what a hypocritical asshole he is.

  • ||

    I know it's difficult, but everything worth doing is difficult. Just hold on to that.

  • Tony||

    What have I done that's hypocritical? You don't know how I live. I can think of few things more hypocritical--at least ironic--than using the government-invented Internet to indulge in dogmatic antigovernmentism.

  • ||

    Stay strong, Tman. Count to 10. Take a walk around the block. You can get through this.

  • ||

    I love how Reasonable will just leave a ghost of who I'm ignoring. It's like someone you hate shouting at you, from the outside, through a closed window in a loud, busy diner, which just makes them angrier.

    WHAT'S THAT YOU SAID, FUCKWAFFLE? I CAN'T HEAR YOU!

  • ||

    "Just walk away, Tman...just walk away."

  • Tman||

    (walks away Eastwood style...shoots a hippie for good measure...)

  • ||

    It really pisses you off that others can dream about things that you could never even fathom and that they might actually even have the balls to try it, don't it?

    No surprise, you are the stereotypical type to sit in the corner of you mommies basement afraid to try anything that you might fail at, which I am guessing by your whining attitude, would be pretty much anything.

  • .||

    "not allowed ever to pool their resources"

    You said this, but you meant something else. As usual.

  • -||

    human expansion off the planet

    That's never been a goal of NASA. Such a goal is certainly unfeasible at this time and for the foreseeable future. Private space "exploration" in the near future will focus primarily on satellite boosts and suborbital joyrides for the wealthy. Huzzah!

  • ||

    Personal computerized phones in everyone's pocket

    That's never been a goal of the FCC. Such a goal is certainly unfeasible at this time and for the foreseeable future. Private "telecommunications" in the near future will focus primarily on more FAX lines and radio car phones for the wealthy. Huzzah!

  • ||

    Now thats what I am talking about dude.

    www.vpn-privacy.tk

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