NASA is moving forward with its vision of an “orderly transition” for US human space flight, from the current regime of heavy reliance on NASA sponsorship into one “where NASA is one of many customers of a low-Earth orbit (LEO) commercial human space flight enterprise.” Opening the ISS for commercial business is high up on the list. wfoojjaec has previously reported concerns about the well-being of the ISS, which NASA is already planning on deorbiting, perhaps within the decade. The station is already in use as a National Lab, and it hosts science projects from academic, commercial, and public-sector entities. It is already in a liminal state between government control and commercial use.
Congress does seem to understand this, but that doesn’t mean they want to pay for it. Even Congress agrees that a robust and competitive low-Earth economy is vital for progress in space.
That theme came up over and over during a recent, very windy hearing between NASA representatives, a bunch of corporations, and the House Space Subcommittee on the topic of the LEO economy. Jeff Manber, chief executive of NanoRacks, reminded listeners that he’d already lost business to a Chinese company, from a customer he declined to name. Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project of Center for Strategic and International Studies, echoed the theme and said that China was America’s biggest competitor in space.
“The real objective of this race is to see who can build the broadest and strongest coalition,” he said. “Whatever group of nations emerges as the leading coalition in space over the next decade will be the one that sets the de facto norms for space commerce and exploration that follows.”
Translation: if we don’t stay having at least our current presence in LEO, China’s going to take it over, to our detriment. Since China has demonstrated its willingness to perform ethnic cleansing on its own soil, and flex its control over huge amounts of money and industry so that it can censor media in other countries, it is in fact widely considered not to be a good idea to allow a totalitarian government to take control over the entire sky.
Legislatively speaking, NASA is painted into a corner here. It’s required by law to do a lot of things, some of which are mutually exclusive. NASA is required in “numerous pieces of legislation” to seek and encourage the economic development of LEO to the greatest extent possible. They are regularly underfunded, receiving only a fraction of what they request from the same Congress that writes NASA’s to-do list. The agency’s most recent budget cut a billion dollars from its science division, which manages the ISS. It’s also required by law to keep holding on to the Space Launch System, whose costs are estimated at two billion dollars per launch.
The career capability of the SLS is limited by, among many other things, the number of spare shuttle parts we still have. Its fastest possible launch cadence is about once a year. Meanwhile, SpaceX did 26 launches in 2020 and is slated to do 31 by the end of 2021, and it does each launch for a small fraction of what the SLS is expected to cost. No, I take that back: The comparison is actually more uneven because SpaceX’s rockets are reusable.
SLS has been derisively called the “Senate Launch System.” It’s responsible for a lot of jobs in Florida, Alabama, and Texas. Even if you completely axed every dollar NASA is spending on deep space research, NASA could be employing those people to do things relevant to its mission to commercialize LEO. Instead, fully 10 percent of NASA’s budget, and the jobs and lives of a whole lot of people in the American South, are being used as a political tool.
Regardless of whether NASA gets money from Congress to create a literal, physical paywall in space, NASA is moving ahead in good faith. The agency is currently evaluating proposals from about a dozen companies, including LockMart, Blue Origin, Boeing, Northrup Grumman, and others, concerning the growth potential of a LEO economy. The final reports are due in December.
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