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||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)|