New study calls for government to center its space policy around private enterprise

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Link here. The study is detailed, thoughtful, and strongly reiterates the same policy recommendations I put forth in Capitalism in Space.

The paper outlines what the authors think the government should do over the next decade-plus to encourage the take-over of the American space effort by private enterprise. While much of this makes sense, when they get into outlining the specific projects that they want to happen in the 2020s it comes the stuff of fantasy, what the authors wish would happen.

If the government transitions away from a “space program” and instead creates a chaotic and free space industry, it will then be impossible to lay out a specific step-by-step “program” of achievement. Instead, the engine of freedom will take over, and what it will generate can never be predicted, except that it will be vigorous, surprising, and successful, doing things quickly and with exuberance.

That should be the fundamental goal of our government.



  • wodun

    If the government transitions away from a “space program” and instead creates a chaotic and free space industry

    I agree but there is a challenge in articulating and persuading people that this is a good course. It isn’t that people haven’t tried but I haven’t seen a good message that really encapsulates what this means from a big picture perspective. There have been a lot of good appeals that work for different niche audiences, just not with a lot of mass appeal.

  • Edward

    Robert wrote: “While much of this makes sense, when they get into outlining the specific projects that they want to happen in the 2020s it comes the stuff of fantasy, what the authors wish would happen.

    What they wish would happen is the point of the paper. Their recommendations are intended to support these wishes. Their goal is freeing the space industry from the current paradigm of industry working to government requirements — as the paper phrased in on page 27: “the constraints of the political-industrial system that dominated its uses for its first half-century or more.” Much of the paper is speculation as to what a freed commercial space industry would eventually choose to do.

    I assume that Robert thinks that everything in figures ES1 and 7 after the on-orbit infrastructure are too early for the 2020s (shuttles, Earth-Moon L2 (EML-2) fuel depot, lunar infrastructure, and asteroid recon and use). I agree. These could be challenge goals, but that is a lot of challenge, even as technology demonstration missions. These would be difficult to achieve next decade even if policies were changed this year.

    I think that the idea for the low Earth orbit (LEO) fuel depot and tug to get geostationary Earth orbit (GEO) satellites on orbit would be an achievable goal for early in the next decade. As with this decade, it will take baby steps to demonstrate that commercial space is up to the task of what the authors call the virtuous cycle — they want to turn the current vicious cycle into a virtuous cycle. Blue Origin and SpaceX announced reusable rockets a decade ago, and they were met with skepticism. There was even skepticism that commercial companies could launch private rockets on their own. These skeptical attitudes were part of that vicious cycle. Launches had to be “ customized, complicated and difficult” causing them to be expensive, and because they were expensive they had to be assured of working right the first time, causing them to be customized, complicated, and difficult. The virtuous cycle is where lower costs results in more usage which results in even lower costs and even more usage.

    For instance, Low launch costs allows for large constellations of satellites, which allows for mass production of satellites, which results in lower per-unit cost. The resulting higher launch rate allows for fixed costs (e.g. pad teams) to be amortized over more launches allowing for even lower haunch costs.

    Some things that I liked about the full report ( ) includes figure 2. This shows an eventual refueling depot at the EML-2 point for travel to the rest of the solar system. I do not know whether this is the best place for an interplanetary refueling depot or if it is one place of several good ones, but it adds to the ideas that others have presented in the past. ULA suggested EML-1 as an important place for working and travelling around cislunar space. Gerard K. O’Neill thought that EML-4 and EML-5 would be important as population centers for manufacturing. We already use GEO as an important place for communications and weather forecasting.

    My assumption is that the fuel depot mentioned in Figure 3 is a LEO depot, but perhaps the authors intended it to be the EML-2 fuel depot. It is conceivable that by 2026 we could have commercial GEO satellites designed to use a LEO fueling depot and tug.

    At the end of section 4.5, they present a problem that we have suffered for the past half century: lack of imagination. “The [current political-industrial] system’s assumptions about how space activities are conducted do not imagine or provide for changes that would be wrought by having facilities in space. Because we have never done anything else, we can’t imagine doing anything else, and we plan our future space activities with this status quo approach, further entrenching it.

    The report points out that some of the ideas that commercial space is using in order to reduce the cost of getting to space and using space have been known and discussed for years or decades but due to politics were not pursued by the political-industrial system. Politics prevented development of efficient systems and methods that commercial space is developing now. Part of this may be due to a failure of imagination by the government organizations that have controlled space access and space usage, but most of it was probably due to a lack of governmental interest in efficiency.

    Speaking of controlling access, I had not known until now that the creation of the Ariane rocket was a result of the US turning down launching a Eutelsat satellite, because it would take away market share from Intelsat. It may have been penny wise, but it was pound foolish. On second thought, it was penny foolish, too; competition is good, as the current burgeoning virtuous cycle is showing.

    As an example of how policy changes can help commercial space thrive, the COTS, CRS, and CCDev programs show that these days private/public partnerships can work well. This was not the case under the old paradigm, as demonstrated by the failures, in the 1990s, of the X-33 (Venturstar), DC-X (Delta Clipper), and X-37 (Orbital Test Vehicle). The two X-37s didn’t fly under NASA, but the Air Force took possession and is still flying them.

    Also mentioned on page 60: “the opportunity cost of NASA competing with the private sector holds the industry back.” This is one reason why I have concerns about NASA opening up the ISS to more commercial uses. The ISS may be helping the private sector today, but what happens to commercial space stations in a few years?

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