The current structure of the U.S. space program is preventing the country from taking full advantage of technology and private resources that could make significant improvements to communication and navigation systems, clean energy, manufacturing, research, and national defense, a new Reason Foundation study shows.
The report outlines a 10-year plan for shifting from a space exploration model centered on NASA to a commerce-based structure where the private sector assumes responsibility for all space transportation, large payload launch vehicles and launch operations, in-space facilities and more. Using only NASA’s current funding levels, the study presents a realistic timeline for public-private development of basic space infrastructure, including fuel depots (essentially gas stations) for space vehicles, a shuttle for travel to the moon, lunar facilities to resupply and aid construction in space, and an orbital facility complex that would be part of the foundation for large-scale space exploration, research and commercialization.
The study, by Jeff Greason and James Bennett, two veterans of the private space industry, praises NASA for steps it has taken in recent years to make greater use of commercial capabilities but says far more is needed and offers a plan of thorough reforms that would greatly increase the return the nation receives from its space budget. The study concludes the private sector’s long-term space efforts could be funded by self-sustaining commercial activities and supplemented by government contracts. The authors explain that by shifting from a NASA-based exploration paradigm to a commercial space paradigm, the private sector would begin seeking sources of water and clean energy in space. Additionally, the low-gravity and low-temperature properties of space could prompt investment from research and manufacturing and sectors. And companies would be likely to pursue useful raw resources and materials, along with potential ways of sequestering hazardous debris in space.
“A commerce-based structure, much like we have with the seas and airspace, in which government provides a legal framework where the private sector can flourish, would greatly advance our use of the space environment, maximizing our potential to pursue these activities,” said the study’s co-author, Jeff Greason, founder of XCOR Aerospace and co-founder of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. “NASA in this new paradigm would operate more as a venture capitalist, making an investment in the infrastructure that serves both government and commercial transportation needs and fosters an industry that is increasingly self-sustaining financially.”
“The existing space exploration paradigm is plagued by politicization and uncertain funding that makes each project more difficult to get approved, and more complicated risky and expensive to complete,” stated the study’s co-author, James Bennett, a co-founder of two space-launch start-ups, Starstruck, Inc. and American Rocket Company, which pioneered hybrid rocket propulsion. “Private actors and market forces have already started slashing the costs of accessing space. These advancements have greatly reduced costs for not only NASA, but also civilian (mostly satellite) and military space transport as well. Extending this good start and making it more consistent is the only way, within the current NASA budget, that leads to comprehensive advancement in space, ensuring that our reach always exceeds our grasp.”
“The private sector has made impressive advances and this important report shows how Congress can help spur the next generation of advancements,” said Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at Reason Foundation. “For NASA, this study’s recommendations would allow the agency to focus on its core research and exploration missions and free it from many of the political whims and yearly budget battles it is hampered by.”
Report and Resources Online
The Economics of Space: An Industry Ready to Launch
By Jeff Greason and James Bennett
Full Study (.pdf)
Robert Poole: New Study Calls for Major Rethinking and Reorganization of U.S. Space Policy
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