In a Jan. 27, 2013 piece in the Wall Street Journal, Robert Walker, a former congressman, and Charles Miller, a former NASA senior advisor for commercial space, propose that President Obama “relaunch” commercial space by cancelling NASA’s heavy lift Space Launch System that is envisioned to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit for the first time in decades. Their proposal is not only ill considered but will further erode support for commercial space in the Congress and with other stakeholders in the aerospace community.
The theory that the authors of the piece offer is that the commercial sector can offer services that the Space Launch System can for far less money. It is a fine supposition in theory. But the first version of the SLS will be capable of taking 70 metric tons to low Earth orbit with later versions being capable of as many as 130 metric tons. This capability is necessary to mount expeditions back to the moon and beyond with as few launches as possible. By contrast, the heaviest commercial vehicle planned, the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, is only capable of launching 54 metric tons, inadequate for any robust voyages of exploration. Relying on existing commercial vehicles would require many launches for each expedition, greatly increasing the risk of mission failure and delay, increasing rather than decreasing the cost of space exploration.
Walker and Miller also play fast and loose with history, attempted to tie the commercial space policies of Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush with that of President Obama. Reagan and the second Bush understood what the true meaning of the word “commercial” is. It does not include heavy reliance on government subsidies that distort the marketplace and allows the government to pick winners and losers. Obama’s commercial space program is much like his alternate energy program. The difference is that SpaceX has not been quite as embarrassing as Solyndra.
Reagan and both Bushes were firm supporters of NASA space exploration. They wisely saw a demarcation between commercial space flight, involving routine flights to and from the International Space Station, and voyages of exploration, involving cutting edge missions that do not have an immediate commercial purpose but do have a national purpose. Indeed, the second Bush saw commercial space as being complementary to space exploration and not in competition to it and certainly not as a replacement.
When the second President Bush proposed the program that eventually became Constellation, he had spent time vetting it with congressional and other stakeholders. That is one reason why the project enjoyed and still enjoys broad bi-partisan support in Congress. Bush’s one failing was that he did not consistently support his own program with adequate funding.
By contrast, President Obama cancelled the Constellation program and greatly expanded Bush’s commercial space program with massive subsidies abruptly, without consulting Congress. It is no wonder that Congress rebelled and reinstated at least some part of the old Constellation program. Supporting commercial space was not controversial when Bush used it to support space exploration. But the moment Obama pitting commercial space against space exploration, support for the former in Congress soured.
Walker and Miller propose that Obama make the same mistake again by attempting to cancel funding for the one launch vehicle that can realistically send human explorers beyond low Earth orbit and to recommence the great work done by Apollo. If Obama were to succeed, it would end or at least seriously delay American space exploration. If he fails, he will have thrown NASA into great turmoil and chaos, alienate Congress even more, and delaying a coherent space exploration program until at least the next administration.
Obama should, instead of taking the flawed advice of Walker and Miller, accept one recommendation of the Augustine Committee that he has thus far failed to take and adequately fund NASA’s space exploration. And, taking into account the National Research Council’s recent report, he should drop the asteroid expedition in favor of a return to the moon, as envisioned in the original Constellation program. Then at least something can be salvaged from the battered and worn national space program that the president has resided over.