One of the more tiresome debates over space policy has been over President Obama’s scheme to provide almost $6 billion in subsidies to commercial space companies. The National Deficit Commission would like this money cut from the federal budget.
In a bitter irony, a full-throated defense of the Obama space policy, which included the elimination of the Constellation space exploration program and the subsidies to commercial space companies, appeared in The American Spectator website on the same day that the two co-chairs of the National Deficit Commission, Democrat Erskine Bowles and Republican Alan Simpson, recommended that those subsidies be eliminated.
Writers Iain Murray, with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and Rand Simberg, a blogger and self-described “recovering aerospace engineer,” declared that “Apollo is over” and the future of the US space program lays with subsidies for commercial space companies.
“New commercial capabilities to deliver astronauts both to the station and to low-Earth orbit for exploration beyond would become available no later than 2015 (and probably earlier), at a small fraction of the cost of the planned Constellation rocket: the Ares I launcher and Orion crew capsule.
“The new NASA plan would make those capabilities available not just to a few NASA civil servants, but to all comers, including private space researchers and sovereign clients (foreign governments) that have signed memoranda of understanding with Bigelow Aerospace to lease its planned orbital facilities, independent of the ISS.”
Mr. Bowles and Mr. Simpson, perhaps adhering to a more traditional view of what the word “commercial” means, would beg to disagree. They recommend that Congress:
“Eliminate funding for commercial spaceflight. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) plans to spend $6 billion over the next five years to spur the development of American commercial spaceflight. This subsidy to the private sector is costly, and while commercial spaceflight is a worthy goal, it is unclear why the federal government should be subsidizing the training of the potential crews of such flights. Eliminating this program would save $1.2 billion in 2015.”
Unmentioned in the long list of recommended cuts is the rump program, salvaged from Constellation, to develop a heavy lift launch vehicle and the Orion deep space exploration craft. It seems that Apollo, if by that it is meant that a traditional program of space exploration, is not “over” after all.
The problem with the debate over commercial space is in what way and how much the government should encourage it. The Bush-era Commercial Orbital Transportation Systems (COTS) program provided some seed money to commercial space firms to put the NASA stamp of approval of their efforts and to get them going while they raised funds in the capital markets. In the meanwhile, the Constellation program was developing a NASA launch vehicle, called the Ares 1, that would deliver the Orion to low Earth orbit just in case the commercial space firms suffered delays or were not able to perform.
The Obama administration eliminated Constellation, analysts suggest because it is opposed to space exploration in general, and substituted an increase in commercial space subsidies to just short of $6 billion. President Obama was, in effect, going all in for commercial space, albeit bolstered with massive government spending. There was no Plan B in case the scheme failed, except for more subsidies.
Defenders of the Obama subsidies for commercial space firms speak, as Mr. Murray and Mr. Simberg do, in glowing, almost utopian terms about how the plan will unleash a new era of commercial space flight. The problem is that commercial space firms such as SpaceX and Boeing were not relying primarily on private funding or even private markets, the nascent deal with Bigelow notwithstanding. This led to the spectacle of Elon Musk, the (formerly) entrepreneurial CEO of SpaceX roaming the halls of Congress with a troop of lobbyists demanding his subsidies and comparing lawmakers who did not want to give him his due to the Soviet Politburo.
In the upside-down world of the Obama space policy koolaid drinkers, those objecting to government subsidies to commercial space firms were called supporters of “big government” and worse.
Republican lawmakers who now run the House of Representatives were the most dubious about the commercial space subsidies. They are also looking for ways to cut the federal budget in order to reduce the deficit. It looks like the co-chairs of the National Deficit Commission have given them permission to fulfill two of their desires at once: eliminate the subsidies and cut the budget.
Sources: Big Government’s Final Frontier, Iain Murray & Rand Simberg, The American Spectator, November 10th, 2010
Draft Document, National Deficit Commission