Earlier this month, NASA conducted an unmanned test flight of the Orion Spacecraft. From launch through recovery, it went as well as an unmanned test flight could possibly go. The test has reinvigorated the US space program, which even I admit had devolved into a few satellite providers and Americans riding shotgun on Soyuz ISS crew delivery missions. With the Orion test flight, NASA has dealt itself back in to the space exploration discussion. Obviously, the best thing to do as a follow-up to a “flawless” unmanned test flight is to dismantle the deep space exploration program before it ever gets a chance to get back on its feet, and privatize the surface of every planet, moon, or asteroid.
This is what commentators like Phil Plait as Slate are suggesting. According to him, NASA, moreover the American public, should be putting all its faith in the private sector—organizations like SpaceX—simply because they are advertising a launch vehicle with greater capabilities and lower costs than the SLS program can field for Orion. I have many reservations with this approach.
This is going to be an uncomfortable fact for the people who want to serve up ownership of space to private corporations to carve up among themselves: no private company has put people in space. The list of organizations that have successfully completed orbital manned spaceflight are limited to governments: USSR, USA, Russia, and China. On October 28, an Orbit Sciences Corp. rocket blew up on the launch pad; consequently, the Wallops Island launch pad in Virginia is out of commission pending an investigation that anticipated to keep the Antares rocket grounded “for months”. The explosion leaves SpaceX as the only American ISS supplier. This is not to say NASA doesn’t lose spacecraft, or indeed, lives—during the space shuttle era, the lives of 14 astronauts were lost. However, NASA has been launching spacecraft since 1958. They’ve accomplished every type of mission for which there has been a need. NASA is so good at putting things into Low Earth Orbit that it makes since to give some of its expertise to private organizations for the purposes of resupply of the ISS. “Space Trucking” is a low risk gateway into the space program, and it theoretically frees up manpower and budget for NASA to focus on scientific pursuits, Research and Development, and deep space exploration programs.
Delivering on Promises
The criticism of SLS and NASA is founded in the notion that SpaceX has promised (cross their heart and hope to die) that they can deliver a launch vehicle with more capability than SLS, at lower procurement cost and almost no functional operating costs. According to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, one of the possible proposals was to “minimize development time and cost” of the SpaceX heavy launcher. This quote was from 2010, so hopefully someone with an understanding of exactly how risk averse NASA is got to Musk and demonstrated this universal truism of dealing with NASA: anything one thinks they’re going to save in development they will lose tenfold in verification, validation, and certification. Every shortcut in requirements development, component fabrication, component integration, and testing will raise a red flag in the mind of senior NASA management. Suddenly, the development program which has been sizzling along grinds to a complete halt as an important stakeholder reviews the requirements, pass/fail criteria, or testing methodology, and questions the validity of everything on the program that’s been done up to that point. I’ve been on NASA programs for 10 years, and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say the above scenario, or similar, has happened at every major milestone for the program(s) I’ve worked on. I appreciate Elon Musk trying to hype his organization and product by making aggressive promises, but my experience leads me to believe those promises are less George Zimmer, and more John Romero.
The Monopoly Effect
Even if SpaceX could deliver on its promises of an ultra-low-cost, high payload launch capability in the near term, any guarantee of long-term cost savings is dubious. SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp might be doing the heavy lifting for resupplying the ISS, but NASA still pays both companies to do it. NASA also still provides the programmatic oversight for both SpaceX and OSC Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) Space Act Agreements; however, NASA only pays on these COTS contracts when specific performance based milestones are completed. Critics of the current SLS program will point here to demonstrate the savings SpaceX and OSC could provide for deep space exploration missions. This paradigm works, in part, because NASA is still in the business of launching spacecraft. The existence of the government as a player in space missions makes creating a monopoly out of ISS Resupply or deep space exploration impossible. If we’ve learned nothing from cable TV and ISPs, it’s that local monopolies, pseudo-monopolies, and/or government-condoned monopolies are great for everyone but the consumer. When it comes to space, we’re all the consumer. I’m all for finding efficiencies in the mundane parts of the space program like resupply of the ISS, but I believe NASA must be in the lead for deep space exploration. One more question I’d like to posit: what happens if NASA gets out of the launch business, and the private companies that have the responsibility for the space program go public and decide space tourism is more profitable? I know for absolute certain it will be most expensive to re-start the space program after mothballing it to go the bargain basement route for deep space exploration.
Matters of Ownership
Here’s a hypothetical: NASA captures an asteroid and parks it in orbit around the moon. An Orion crew puts boots on the asteroid and discovers the asteroid contains a bounty of valuable materials. Who owns them? The answer to that question is intuitively obvious: every American citizen owns a part of that asteroid, since we all do our part to fund NASA. Theoretically, we get a cut of whatever the value of the material on that asteroid is.
What if SpaceX lands a crew on the captured asteroid? Doesn’t SpaceX own everything? Isn’t it in their best interest to sell the contents of the asteroid at or above market price?
Take the next step. SpaceX lands a crew on the moon, or establishes a base on the moon. Do they rent space in the moon base? Do American scientists have to compete with super rich people to pay for a package deal covering spacefare and lodging? Is SpaceX contractually obligated to provide room and board for NASA or ESA scientists at “government rate”? How often are contracts re-negotiated?
Maybe I’m being paranoid, but we’ve seen the Supreme Court give away the electoral and legislative process to organizations with the most money. There’s nothing to say that lobbyists for the space industry couldn’t or wouldn’t induce Congress to privatize the surface of the moon or Mars.
The Issue is Acquisitions
The last objection I have with the notion of privatizing deep space exploration is that the criticisms of SLS assume the problems with Orion and the SLS are immutable. This simply isn’t true. Government acquisitions is a huge and complex set of rules and processes. The document that governs the overwhelming majority of government programs (especially the big ones in aerospace) is the Federal Acquisition Regulation. FAR is 1800 pages of rigidity in the face of modern technology that’s best described as fluid. It is true that a launch of SLS has slipped from 2017 to 2018, but that’s not unique. Many major government programs end up over budget and behind schedule to one degree or another, the rigidity of FAR and how it is applied on high technology programs is a contributor as to why. The DoD’s head of acquisitions, Frank Kendall, has pointed out improvements that can be made in Defense acquisitions. Shortcomings in commercial acquisitions share many of the root causes as in Defense acquisitions, and the same kinds of improvements that would work in Defense acquisitions would also work in commercial acquisitions. Most importantly, industry leaders, senior contracting officers, and congressional committee chairs must modernize FAR and apply the new regulations to all current and future government acquisitions. In other words, hit the reset button.
The Orion test puts NASA back into the manned space exploration conversation. I like the idea of NASA involving private industry for the low hanging fruit of sending material, and eventually people, to the ISS. That said, potential long-term stability and certainty of staying the course for deep space exploration with NASA at the helm is more important than the promise of short-term cost savings from turning deep space exploration over to private industry.