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Thu, Nov 03, 2011

U.S. Spaceflight: Commercial Versus Federal

Digging Trenches And Making Tar Pits

Commentary/Analysis By ANN Space Analyst, Wes Oleszewski

On January 18, 2006 NASA announced the COTS program. COTS stands for Commercial Orbital Transportation Services and is rooted in the concept that private companies can provide a means of supplying cargo and later crews to the International Space Station (ISS) in light of NASA’s thinning budget. It is also thought that the COTS program will, according the then NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, “…be a huge opportunity for truly commercial space enterprise.” and COTS would thus “…engage the engine of competition,” so that “these services will be provided in a more cost-effective fashion than when the government has to do it. “ All that was required in order to make the dream come true was a little bit of Federal money to prime that “engine of competition.”

Funding of $175,000,000 was allotted for the winners of the initial COTS contracts. Seven months after the initial COTS rollout the contract winners, Rocketplane Kistler and SpaceX were announced. Rocketplane Kistler was later disqualified on February 19, 2008 and Orbital Sciences Corporation took their place in the COTS second round selection. Running in tandem with the Constellation moon program, it appeared then as if the COTS program would compliment NASA’s Federal space efforts nicely. There were, however, a few flaws in the plan.

Flaw number one came when the Federal Government handed out that 175 million dollars. No “private” company can remain private once it hooks up to the I.V. that drips tax dollars- not that there is anything wrong with that. There are plenty of Federal contractors who do great work and spaceflight of any sort is hugely expensive. Today, both SpaceX and Orbital are doing fantastic things and the US taxpayers are getting tremendous mileage for their dollars. The rub comes with those folks in the spaceflight and political circles who argue for a “pure commercial” space program… supported by more and more Federal dollars. Chief among these folks is President Obama who has gone to the greatest lengths to make this Federally subsidized, pure commercial paradox come true. The simple fact is, the more Federal dollars a company takes, the less private they must become. This all turns into a dollars vs. the dreams tar pit. Each Federal dollar has a string attached and soon trying operate a program as efficiently as a private corporation turns into trying to sprint in a tar pit of Federal regulations and oversight.

The next flaw was created when the President used his office to try and force his pure commercial paradox on the entire United States space effort by canceling the Constellation program and leaving nothing but the COTS contractors to fill the void when the Space Shuttle was retired. This radical and myopic move resulted in a backlash from the Congress as well as most of the spaceflight community. The Congress quickly reaffirmed, by law, that it is the policy of the United States to have Federally operated human space exploration program and hardware. In turn that caused the President to push farther his pure commercial paradox when on April 15th, 2010 he visited KSC and Cape Canaveral making a first-hand visit to the space X facilities while essentially ignoring NASA's spaceport.

Soon some unexpected human factors came into play as the spaceflight community began to entrench on two very different sides; “commercial” and “Federal.” A needless trench-war developed that, given the current condition of the US manned space program, will be of no good to either side.

With the United States having retired the Space Shuttle with no replacement being in work, what is needed is not either “commercial” or “Federal,” but BOTH. NASA, needs the wizardry of the folks at SpaceX right now as much as the American people need NASA. The same goes for Orbital and likewise we need the companies that are not a part of COTS. A good look at history will teach us this lesson in spaceflight success. A good example being the Saturn I, Block II vehicles first stages- SA-5, 6, 7 and 9 were officially built by NASA at MSFC while SA-8 and SA-10 were built by the Chrysler Corporation as were all of the S-IB stages. Yet, no one thought of those Chrysler boosters as being “commercial,” or “private.” Likewise, numerous Apollo era companies put their own cash into products that were later contracted to NASA. Additionally, in Project Gemini the booster was built by the Martin Corporation and the spacecraft was built by the McDonnell Company under contract to NASA. If the same “Pure Commercial” paradox had been inserted at any point in that effort we would never have gotten to the moon.

Unfortunately, there are those who are making political hay from the commercial vs. Federal trench war. A case in point being California Representative Dana Rohrabacher who continues to press to have NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) canceled in order to leave only “commercial” to fill the void.  Yet at the same time he sits in committee and whines about how two entrenched sides have formed on the issue. Each time he speaks on the subject he does little more than make the trenches deeper and the tar pit wider. The American people are simply lucky that when Rohrabacher begins to bloviate he is normally the only dissenting voice on the committee pulling to cancel the Federal program.

Still, like Rohrabacher, there are some in the spaceflight community who chant the “Commercial good- Federal bad” mantra. This, in the belief that all Federal space dollars should go to “commercial” spaceflight- which would thus, no longer make them commercial. Along the way other companies that have a spaceflight heritage, such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin and especially ATK are vilified as being the spawn of satin. The whole thing begins to become as silly looking as Occupy Wall Street although it may not smell as bad. In fact the heritage companies are simply Federal contractors and nothing more. Likewise SpaceX and Orbital are not the spaceflight messiah. They are simply new and different and… Like it or not, since they are now taking federal dollars under the COTS program, they too are now Federal contractors.

Under study, this whole commercial vs. Federal argument appears to be dividing the spaceflight community at a critical point in its history. A time when, more so than at any point in past four decades, the community needs to function together as a team. And it calls into question, was that division the intention of the President in the first place?

FMI: www.nasa.gov

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