Future of Space Program May Depend on Private Space Transportation

Members of a subcommittee of the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, an independent, blue-ribbon committee formed to analyze the U.S. space program, have recommended that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) utilize private companies to transport cargo and people to and from the International Space Station. Relying on private firms for transportation services would free up NASA resources for more ambitious ventures, such as human missions to the moon or Mars.

“I think you will find out there are a lot of people who will rise and compete,” former Boeing executive Bohdan “Bo” Bejmuk told the panel. “Some of them will fail, some of them will succeed, but you will have essentially created a new industry.”

Private space companies like Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, commonly known as SpaceX, and Orbital Sciences Corporation have already made great strides in developing rockets and launching satellites and space probes. SpaceX won a $278 million government contract in 2006 as part of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services projects. In 2007, Orbital Sciences took over a contract worth $170 million for its Taurus 2 launcher and Cygnus capsule combination after underfunded venture Rocketplane Kistler failed to deliver on its financial objectives.

The potential cost-saving privatization recommendation comes as questions are arising about the accuracy of NASA’s budget and the future of the space program. Current plans call for seven more shuttle flights through September 30, 2010, after which the shuttle fleet is to be decommissioned and new space vehicles are designed and built. The new vehicles are not expected to be completed for some time, however, leading to a “launch gap” of five to seven years. But according to human space flight review panel member Sally Ride, former astronaut and the first American woman in space, NASA’s budget–which totals $18 billion for the current fiscal year–is unlikely to even meet current goals. “We have come to believe very firmly that it’s important to have a realistic view of what the existing program as it will realistically unfold most likely will cost and not put any smoke and mirrors to the budget to make it look like it will fit under the budget profile,” Ride said during a public meeting earlier this week. In addition, panel members noted that NASA was unlikely to complete work on the space station and retire the shuttle fleet before March 2011, which would require additional funding. “But, of course, there is no funding for that possibility,” Ride noted. “That’s setting you up right away for a budget problem.”

William Watson, executive director of the Space Frontier Foundation, which promotes commercial space activities, welcomes private-sector involvement in, and competition for, space transportation services. “Let’s have an American competition in space–to create good jobs, fuel innovation and close the [launch] gap more quickly,” Watson was quoted as saying in a May 2009 article. “With private funds matching government investment, we can dramatically leverage taxpayer dollars to produce breakthroughs in a new American industry-commercial orbital human spaceflight.”

Aerospace consultant and retired NASA aerospace engineer Don A. Nelson similarly sees privatization as a way to stem rapidly rising costs, address the anticipated launch gap, and allow NASA to refocus on its core mission. As Nelson wrote on the blog earlier this year,

NASA is struggling with developing the Orion [space shuttle replacement] vehicles . . . one for space station crew rotation and another for the lunar mission. It is the Orion space station crew rotation vehicle problems that is causing the launch gap. Privatization of the shuttle fleet solves these problems and allows NASA the time, resources, and budget to restructure the Constellation Program (CxP) for their primary goal of returning humans to the moon and beyond. Privatization of the fleet avoids the costly and embarrassing space gap, saves critical space jobs, and insures the operation of the space station. Privatization provides avenues to regain a share in the commercial launch market, crew escape pods, and the foundation for a 21st century reusable space based transportation system.

The government is increasingly coming to the conclusion that a successful space program will depend on a partnership with private-sector ventures. Utilizing these resources will help contain costs, leverage taxpayer dollars, take advantage of the innovation and expertise of those employed by private firms, and free up NASA to focus on its core mission.