“America Aced in Space,” by Hal G.P. Colebatch (TAS, December 29, 2014) is an ill-conceived piece that doesn’t touch the most powerful force in space today — commercial efforts, the vast majority created, nurtured, and built by U.S. entrepreneurs. I cannot hope to correct Mr. Colebatch’s incorrect assertions in 700 words or less, but I can at least partially educate readers on the power of old-fashioned entrepreneurship.
It is factually wrong for Colebatch to say the United States “now depends on Russian rockets to get personnel and supplies to the International Space Station.… The American space program has become hostage to an increasingly surly and unfriendly Russia, whose commitment to supply and service the ISS only lasts to 2016, after which it will have the U.S. over a barrel.”
We’ll ignore the fact that surly and unfriendly Russia is committed to International Space Station (ISS) operations until at least 2020— not 2016.
And that the Putin administration, as much as it does not love the U.S., does love Yankee dollars and the roughly $70 million each time it moves a U.S. astronaut up to the space station. (Much more so these days, given the drop in the price of oil.)
For better or worse, NASA and the Obama administration ceded low Earth orbit (LEO) access to U.S. commercial operations for delivering both cargo and crew to the International Space Station (ISS). Since 2013, the United States has been paying U.S. commercial companies to delivery cargo to the space station and will continue to do so with follow-on contracts.
NASA invested roughly $800 million between 2006 and 2013 for the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. Built around commercial principles, including real competition between vendors and paying companies only after they produced results, COTS provided a venture capital-like environment that successfully fostered the creation of two new launch vehicles and two automated spacecraft, along with cargo operations from Florida and Wallops Island, Virginia.
To date, Orbital Sciences Corporation and SpaceX have successfully conducted five missions under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Program (CRS). SpaceX’s next mission is slated to occur in January and the company will attempt to “fly back” the first stage of the rocket for reuse — something the Chinese and the Russians can only dream about at this point in time.
Orbital has had a bit of a rough go, having lost its third resupply mission due to bad Russian-made engines (a different and longer discussion), but the company plans to meet its commercial obligations to NASA by purchasing a mix of U.S. launchers and reworking their Antares vehicle with a new, better Russian-made engine.
You see, Orbital and SpaceX don’t get fully paid under CRS unless they deliver a set amount of cargo to the space station — a far cry from the cancerous cost-plus practices of the past that once made sense during the Cold War but now suck taxpayers dry. Both companies have free market incentives to improve their costs under a fixed-price contract as well as to offer improvements to their services for the next round of contracts. It isn’t a perfect commercial market by any means, but it is delivering cargo into space in a competitive manner and at lower cost than traditional bureaucratic measures.
As noted before, NASA is in the process of renewing CRS — we are not dependent upon the Russians to bring groceries and science experiments up to ISS even after 2016. Incumbents Orbital and SpaceX, along with new entrants Boeing and Sierra Nevada, have all submitted bids — another sign of a healthy commercial market.
NASA is also in the process of bringing manned commercial flight to the fore.
Boeing and SpaceX are expected to demonstrate crewed commercial flights to ISS by 2017. If the price of oil stays low, this couldn’t come at a worse time for the Russians, since we will have not one but two U.S.-flagged commercial vendors providing transportation services to the space station.
Compare COTS to the boondoggle of the Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System (SLS), heirs to Constellation. For $7.4 billion spent so far, NASA has flown a single, prototype of Orion late this year. Many more billions will follow before Orion’s first manned mission goes into orbit until 2017 at the earliest, assuming the program doesn’t collapse before then under the weight of cost-overruns and political pork barrel politics in Congress.
To be fair, comparing NASA’s commercial crew efforts to Orion/SLS is apples and oranges, but the Orion/SLS “oranges” in this case are provided by vendors that have no incentives to lower cost, knowing they do not have to compete for business and if all else fails, a Congressional Sugar Daddy will toss in some more cash to keep the pork coming.
The real space race is between China and U.S. commercial enterprise, not between China and the U.S. government. Put a roving probe on the moon? We lost that round, the Chinese beat a privately funded mission last year. Still, the $30 million Google Lunar XPRIZE remains open until December 2016. If anyone puts a private rover on the moon, it will be a U.S. company.
Men in space? China currently has the edge, but NASA expects to have not one but two private, U.S. flagged spacecraft certified and tested for operation to LEO by 2017. At that point, the free market will have rough parity.
Space stations? The Chinese plan to put a permanent one up in 2020, but Bigelow Aerospace — yet another U.S. company — is jockeying for customers to start its commercial operations around the same timeframe. So far, the entrepreneur that started Budget Suites of America has put $250 million into his dream of providing space operations to countries that can’t afford a $100 billion ISS.
Returning to the moon may be a closer race. China clearly has a vision, but the country still has to master a range of basic technologies.
Privately held U.S.-based Golden Spike Company has been relatively quiet on its progress since its 2012 launch, but the company cited a price tag of $1.5 billion per flight to put a pair of astronauts on the Moon in 2020. If an American-owned company lands on the moon before a Chinese government effort.
The irony and triumph here is privately owned U.S. companies are poised to surpass Russian government capabilities for space exploration in the next two years and will be on parity with China within five. If Mr. Colebatch would stop babbling about treason and do some more in-depth research next time, it might make for better reading.
— Doug Mohney
(Mr. Mohney is a technology journalist. He can be contacted at email@example.com)
Hal G.P. Colebatch replies:
I do not disagree with a lot of what Mr. Mohney says but think Mr. Mohney appreciates the thrust of my article. It is that the U.S. is falling into a weaker position in space, militarily, while China is making a very determined thrust for hegemony in this area.
NASA’s use of private contractors is probably a good thing, but this is not what I was writing about. Of course, military and civil advances are to some extent, but by no means entirely, the same thing. The U.S. today appears to have no great, obvious, focused project in space remotely comparable to reaching the moon in the 1960s.
NASA is spending a great deal of money, but it is not politically and publicly obvious where it is going. By contrast China is making a determined and directed thrust into space, and has shown an impressive ability to overcome obstacles and to learn from the experiences of the U.S. and other countries.
I think Mr. Mohney and I both want to see the U.S. as the most powerful presence in Space, but we are looking at the matter from different viewpoints.
As far as I know, it is correct that the U.S. now depends on Russian rockets to get personnel and supplies to the International Space Station. Should Russia not renew its contract for any reason, America will be in a very difficult situation.
Obviously this means the American space program has become dependent on Russia. America should be in control of it own future. The source of my information is the International Strategic Studies Association.
At present the drop in oil prices weakens the Putin administration’s hand and makes U.S. dollars welcome, but we do not know what will happen years in the future. A future rise in oil prices is quite on the cards given the turbulent state of the Middle East and Iran. In any event, it will in the future be Russia’s decision whether it is worth being paid by the U.S. or not. There are obvious potential sources of conflict over Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic states that might lead Russia to re-think matters.
Mr. Mohney says: “Men in space? China currently has the edge, but NASA expects to have not one but two private, U.S. flagged spacecraft certified and tested for operation to LEO by 2017. At that point, the free market will have rough parity.”
Of course, I would very much like to see this happen, and hope the free market will succeed, but it hasn’t happened yet.
He continues: “Space stations? The Chinese plan to put a permanent one up in 2020, but Bigelow Aerospace — yet another U.S. company — is jockeying for customers to start its commercial operations around the same timeframe. So far, the entrepreneur that started Budget Suites of America has put $250 million into his dream of providing space operations to countries that can’t afford a $100 billion ISS.”
Ditto. I hope it happens but today it is still pie-in-the-sky. Again, the Branson disaster emphasizes how easily setbacks can occur. It only takes one rocket to blow up to set a commercial program back years.
Mr. Mohney says: “Since 2013, the United States has been paying U.S. commercial companies to delivery cargo to the space station and will continue to do so with follow-on contracts.” It is obvious that China is pushing hard for a presence in space.
Meanwhile, what are NASA’s goals and programs, exactly? It has not done a good job of communicating them to the public.
“If anyone puts a private rover on the moon, it will be a U.S. company.” I am not sure if Mr Mohney is referring to a manned or unmanned rover, but I presume he refers to an unmanned rover. If this happens, and I note the “if,” it will not have obvious military applications — the thrust of what I was writing about.
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