Development of the American commercial space industry: imminent federal decisions and implications for economic development in the states

As he prepares his 2010 state of the state and FY 2011 budget messages, President Obama is widely said to be leaning toward outsourcing to commercial firms some of NASA’s mid-term launch operations (such as resupply of the International Space Station, or even other exploratory ventures).

For intelligent discussion of the options the President has been exploring since late 2009, see the report of the Augustine Commission (formally known as the Review of Human Spaceflight Plans Committee). While not as cheap as the “base case” in-house programs, commercial operations stand a better chance of actually achieving interesting goals and inspiring ordinary Americans, so look for them in these documents, I’d say. I’ll update this post when we know if I’m right. UPDATE (1/24/10): WSJ says it’s going to happen.

A decision to go commercial would mean canceling or scaling back dramatically in-house development programs like the Ares I rocket, and that’s bad news for states that host associated NASA Centers or NASA’s prime contractors that tend to hang their hats nearby. UPDATE 2 (2/1/10): Yep, it’s official. From NASA budget press conference: Ares canceled. Still pretty modest expenditures on commercial launches but realistically now there’s no alternative for low earth orbit.

However, it could be good news for those states where the new generation of new and nimble commercial operators intend to exploit the “airmail” or “internet” models under which government contracts build an entirely new technology-based industry aimed at commercial customers.

Make no mistake. This shift to commercial is already under way. There are new players of some scale like Orbital, SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and many, many smaller ventures. In fact, even the primes have mobilized through joint ventures like United Launch Alliance and individually to capture this business in the event they are no longer working directly on NASA programs, but instead for NASA to deliver payloads to orbit. There’s a big difference, but either way they intend to profit.

Commercial space firms and their suppliers (many indistinguishable from “ordinary” high-tech businesses) do not necessarily nest in the traditional places. According to the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (summary map and excellent full report), there are seven “federal” spaceports (that is, under either military or NASA control) around the nation; another seven already-licensed “non-federal” spaceports (sponsored mainly by state-chartered aerospace development authorities); and another eight “proposed” spaceports of diverse type.

The table below summarizes these data, noting the broad mandates of these space authorities to develop comprehensive aerospace sectors, including enabling technologies of all types. The table also lists states with NASA Centers and their expertises, some but not all of which will be salient to Augustine’s call for enhanced attention to “technology development” necessary to meet long-term, inspirational space goals.

A shift to commercial operations for near-term launch capacity would not necessarily affect NASA’s later-stage plans for heavy-lift vehicles, but once you unleash the forces of capitalism it’s very hard to say where things will end up.

It’s very early to have much certainty, but I’d say that a shift in federal policy toward commercial operation presages a subtle but notable shift in the center of gravity of the American space program from the South/Southeast to the Far West and Southwest, with lots of interesting economic-development consequences. What do you say?

The geography of commercial space development

State Federal spaceport Non-federal spaceport Spaceport authority Non-spaceport NASA asset Comment
Alabama       NASA Marshall Space Flight Center at the Army Redstone Arsenal Space systems and hardware; adjacent to major aerospace research park
Alabama   Spaceport Alabama (proposed) Spaceport Alabama Office at Jacksonville State University    
Alaska   Kodiak Launch Complex Alaska Aerospace Corporation   Mandate to develop "more than space launch"
California Edwards AFB       Alternate shuttle landing site
California Vandenberg AFB       Military missile range; launch presence by SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, and ULA (Boeing/Lockheed JV)
California   California Space Center at Vandenberg California Space Authority   Broad mandate for development of "the space enterprise" including multiple spaceports
California   Mojave Spaceport near Edwards      
California       NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech Robotic space exploration
California       NASA Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards AFB Atmospheric flight research and operations
California       NASA Ames Space IT, based in Silicon Valley
Florida NASA Kennedy Space Center       huttle and ISS launch services; ; launch presence by SpaceX and ULA (Boeing/Lockheed JV)
Florida Cape Canaveral AF Station at Patrick AFB       Military
Florida   Cape Canaveral Spaceport (proposed) Space Florida   Broad mandate for "next generation of space industry businesses"; adjacent research park and facilities
Florida   Cecil Field Spaceport (proposed) Jacksonville Aviation Authority    
Marshall Islands Reagan Test Site       Military missile range; launch presence by SpaceX
Maryland       NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Development of unmanned science spacecraft
Mississippi       NASA Stennis Space Center Rocket engine test complex
New Mexico White Sands Missile Range       Military missile range
New Mexico   Spaceport America (near White Sands) Spaceport America   Broad mandate to develop "the future space industry"; presence by Virgin Galactic, UP Aerospace, X PRIZE Foundation, Lockheed Martin, Payload Specialties, and Microgravity Enterprises
Offshore   Sea Launch Platform     Homeport in Long Beach, CA
Ohio       NASA Glenn Research Center Aeronautics, power systems, propulsion
Oklahoma   Oklahoma Spaceport Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority   Focus on testbed for reusable launch vehicle technology
Texas   West Texas Spaceport (proposed) Pecos County/West Texas Spaceport Development Corporation    
Texas   Blue Origin      
Texas   South Texas Spaceport      
Texas       NASA Johnson Space Center Mission control, astronaut corps, shuttle, ISS ops
Virginia Wallops Flight Facility       Suborbital research programs
Virginia   Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops Virginia Commercial Spaceflight Authority    
Virginia       NASA Langley Research Center Space-based earth science
Washington   Spaceport Washington (proposed) Port of Moses Lake   Private development
Wisconsin   Spaceport Sheboygan (proposed) City of Sheboygan, Wisconsin    
Wyoming   Chugwater Spaceport (proposed)      

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