America Competes (in space)
U.S. Senators working on the Senate version of the America COMPETES bill want input from the science community on Science, Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) and competition issues.
(See the following article on SpaceRef)
I’d like to propose an idea for how the Senate can help America compete on technology, and it fits right in line with the kind of input that the Senators seek…stop trying to kill Commercial Crew!
Ever since 2006 NASA has worked to develop a stronger partnership with the private sector in helping to develop new export products that could place U.S. industry at the core of a fast-moving new tech industry. These efforts have consistently encountered obstacles in Congress and the Senate, some members of which work to protect Old Space launch companies from competition. The old way go doing business uses a small number of providers who subcontract directly with NASA to build vehicles that are designed and priced to serve only NASA. This status quo for spaceflight spends too much money on too small a group and keeps spaceflight innovation and pacing bound to the whims of legislative power and vision. The Commercial Crew program effectively turns NASA-held human spaceflight technology into a spin-off program that widens the tent far beyond the immediate transportation needs of NASA and the International Space Station in time frame, in world-wide impact, in economic growth, and in STEM momentum by developing human spaceflight into a product that can be purchased with private money.
Listen up…If you agree with me on this issue, please copy/paste the following letter that I just wrote and email it to SciencePolicy@commerce.senate.gov with your name at the bottom, as well as to your own Senators. Remember that correspondence to your respective Senators needs your address attached to it, so that they know that you are one of their constituents and so that they know that it isn’t just some yahoo like me with a keyboard and an email copy fetish.
Copyright notice: Please edit the letter below however you like before sending, but the original will remain here as a baseline and I take no responsibility for other peoples’ wording. Copying this letter without reference is only permitted in letters and emails to lawmakers, after which those specific letters and emails become part of the public record and as such become public domain. Any other use of this text must link back to this site as its source.
Subject line: America COMPETES
Dear (Insert your Senator’s name here), the U.S. Senate, and the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation;
As you know, our great country has led the world in most aspects of space exploration for more than 50 years and currently collaborates with many countries on various projects in low Earth orbit (LEO) and beyond.
An industry that leverages the communications advantages of Geosynchronous Orbit (GSO), where robotic satellites seem to hover over specific points along the equator to provide television and other signals to fixed direction dishes, thrives internationally and regularly brings billions of dollars worth of spacecraft development and launch revenue into our country every year.
However, until recently, our launch industry has been dominated by a small group of very expensive (as measured in dollars per pound to orbit) launch providers. This has had the effect of stifling innovation and business opportunity. Much new growth among customers of this industry could have stirred if access to Space had been less costly. Further, these high costs have largely kept other uses of spaceflight a government sponsored industry, making any new investment subject to shifting government priorities and forcing space innovation dollars to compete with social programs. Spaceflight industry in other countries mimics this paradigm.
However, since the arrival of SpaceX and others into the market, this landscape has begun to change. Even China has said that they cannot compete with SpaceX prices, and Arian Space has had to receive subsidies from the European Union in order to share SpaceX’s current dominance in new launch contracts. Older providers in the industry have been forced to innovate and work to lower their own pricing or face crippling market shrinkage.
This new paradigm of low-cost robotic access to LEO and GSO has already started to turn hundreds of millions of dollars of cost per launch into tens of millions. As lower prices become the market expectation, new businesses everywhere will begin to emerge to profit from those lower launch prices. Revenue from foreign businesses and agencies will increasingly pour into U.S. companies which provide that access and the various goods and services associated with it…powering innovation, broad-based job creation, and domestic economic growth.
But what about human spaceflight? Robotic satellites do not generate the same public passion that human spaceflight does. Currently, Russia and China provide the only human orbital space launches available. Our country, the only nation on Earth to land humans on the moon, photograph Pluto close-up, and successfully land and operate robotic rovers on Mars, relies on Russia to carry our astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) in LEO. Since space launch technology crosses over to military purposes, Russia’s renewed military aggressiveness in the world makes our business with their Soyuz launcher somewhat awkward. NASA’s launch contracts with Russia help fund the military tech development and growth of a rising military rival!
Routine operation of the Space Launch System and Orion Spacecraft remains many years away, and those platforms are priced on more traditional scales. Also, they are designed and priced for less frequent use than the ISS needs. For this reason, NASA intends to use them only for deep-space projects. Our earliest and best option to once again launch our own astronauts to the ISS lies with NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program, which is rapidly moving forward to completion in 2017 at currently requested funding levels. However, some in the Senate seem to see Commercial Crew and commercial space competition for launch services for NASA as larger threats than Russia, continuing to cut its funding in the hopes of forcing a down-select to a single launch provider. Boeing, one of the contract winners in Commercial Crew, is already considering a newer launcher for their spacecraft to someday replace the over-priced Atlas used in their current plan. They’ve done this in response to direct pricing pressure applied by their competitor, SpaceX. This proves that the multiple provider plan works for lowering cost to the taxpayer.
Ponder then also, by extension, what the availability of two or more, low-cost, NASA-approved, human launch providers will do for world-wide human access to other LEO destinations besides the ISS. In truth, new space business opportunity, including even commercially owned and operated space stations, currently sit paused, metaphorically holding their breath, waiting for the Commercial Crew Development project to reach its goals. SpaceX, Boeing, and other U.S. companies, with offices or production facilities dispersed throughout the country, want to provide goods and services that other countries cannot provide for themselves at those prices. The moment that the first SpaceX Dragon V2 or Boeing Starliner successfully docks with the ISS, any research organization, private company, small country, or private individual, with hundreds of millions (or maybe even tens of millions) of dollars to invest, will be able to pay that money to U.S. taxpaying companies for enough human access to space to start their own space agencies and human spaceflight programs.
Don’t you see that by cutting funding to Commercial Crew below the amount requested by NASA and President Obama, you kick the can down the road to U.S. human launch independence from Russia to access the ISS? On the issue of the America COMPETES bill, budget cuts against Commercial Crew strangle a Golden Goose that could bring billions in foreign money home to the U.S., liquidating U.S. trade deficits and solidifying U.S. technology leadership in the world.
If you could only see into future decades and witness the results of each dollar invested into Commercial Crew, you would double its funding and maybe even up-select to a third provider. Instead, several Senators from states with Old Space industries have worked to kill the program’s well thought-out goals with irresponsible budget cuts.
Myself and others urge you to consult with your respective business advisers and ask them what being the preferred launch providing nation in a new International space race could do for the revenue of your respective states. We urge you to provide the contracted amount of funding to Commercial Crew, and then invest more into STEM education so that our children can compete in the new technology boom that will soon arise.
Please write wording into the America COMPETES bill that supports the goals and funding of Commercial Crew and our dominance in the upcoming commercial space race.