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SpaceX Falcon 9 SES-8 launch
The rise of SpaceX and its commercial Falcon 9 rocket, seen here launching the SES-8 satellite earlier this month from Cape Canaveral, is one factor of several disrupting the von Braun paradigm of national space policy. (credit: SpaceX)

Arrival of the “New Era” in US space policy

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Several events occurred in the last half of 2013 that signal the arrival of a new era in US space policy. Generally, no one event means a new order, but cumulatively the situation now puts the American space program into unknown territory. The events include the arrival of SpaceX and Orbital Sciences on the main stage, the announcement of the most recent US space transportation policy, the collapse of the US space exploration program, and the soft landing on the Moon by the Chinese. These events can be grouped into two clusters: US domestic space policy and US international space policy. What is being described is the culmination of decades of change in US space policy: not the product of any one presidential administration or congress but, rather, the relentless pressure of events often outside the immediate realm of space policy. All are impacted by the changing role of the United States in the world and its response to that change, with overflow effects upon space endeavors. Symbolically, the end of the Cold War in 1989, along with the1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, removed the major incentives and anxieties that drove the early days of the US space program.

Domestic space policy

Since the inception of the Space Age, the private sector has struggled with its relationship to the government derived and driven US space program. Submerged in the glamor of the Apollo program and the national security restrictions imposed by the Cold War, the private sector strived with varying degrees of intensity to free itself from the constraints imposed by the security state. The Europeans were the first to break free, while US corporations for the most part made their peace with these restrictions, being wrapped in the cocoon of government subsidy. Regardless, efforts continued to first free up the satellite communications industry from the shackles of Intelsat and Comsat, unleashing the private sector to exploit the possibilities of the space commerce.

What has occurred is a major change in US space policy, where the private sector is now given an open door to compete in ways an earlier generation only dreamed would ever occur.

The Space Shuttle Challenger accident in January 1986 broke the government monopoly over space launch, but that change initially benefited international competitors rather than the legacy US launchers. Initial efforts by new US companies to develop commercial launch options floundered on changes in the satellite communications marketplace, primarily the collapse of the first wave of proposed giant communications satellites flotillas, such as Telesdic with its 840 small satellites. The 66 Iridium satellites were placed in orbit and then promptly filed for bankruptcy; Iridium’s survival was due to Department of Defense (DOD) willingness to fund a satellite system capable of global reach at reasonable cost, unlike the original marketing of Iridium with its $3,000 phones.

In the 1990s, the federal government wandered off into its own world with the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program for DOD replacing the legacy launchers, and the X-33/X-34 reusable launch vehicle (RLV) programs for NASA, the X-33 being the putative shuttle replacement that was cancelled in 2001. NASA struggled with the problem of a successor to the Space Shuttle especially after the second shuttle loss, when the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up during reentry in 2003. The Ares I was cancelled along with the Constellation program while the Space Launch System (SLS) remains under development, subject to the usual delays that occur in space technology development. The safety issues surrounding the shuttle and the costs of recertification led to its shutdown in 2011.

The private sector was characterized by a few survivors of the original first wave referred to above, but those failed for lack of funding and technical progress sufficient to draw private investment, such as Kistler Aerospace (later Rocketplane Kistler.) The problem fundamentally was a lack of market: insufficient numbers of payloads to justify the investment. Concurrently, a number of states established spaceports in pursuit of these private options but most lagged or never came to fruition when the market changed. By the mid-1990s, a new wave arose with the “NewSpace” movement which began to rethink how to proceed. These advocates were totally focused on private sector approaches and explored how to generate sufficient payloads to justify a private launch industry independent of the federal government. Space tourism became one thrust, although that effort floundered initially on the questions of where do the tourists go and what do they do.

Generating space tourism opportunities became the focus. There were proposals to place landers on the lunar surface and then have individuals drive rovers across the surface following a trail between the various Apollo landing sites. Others pursued sending individuals to orbit, first to the Mir space station and, after its demise in 2001, the International Space Station (ISS). Those trips, however, relied on government launch opportunities and available seats on the Soyuz spacecraft, and also cost multiple million dollars per individual. Clearly, this was a market limited by cost given the continued high cost of lifting payloads to orbit. Dennis Tito was the first tourist to the ISS despite US objections; the Russians, in pursuit of hard currency, were not deterred and nothing prevented that from happening. But as ISS crews grew, fewer seats were available for tourists, although a few still flew to the ISS.

The effort to generate even more payloads was fostered by the establishment of the Ansari X PRIZE, which awarded $10 million to those first able to fly a crewed suborbital vehicle above 100 kilometers, successfully return to Earth, and then repeat the flight within two weeks. In October 2004, SpaceShipOne accomplished that feat, and around the same time a new company, Virgin Galactic, announced that would fly passengers on suborbital flights on SpaceShipTwo for around $200,000 per person. Reservations were being accepted. For a time, a gold rush mentality struck the field with several competitors entering the lists but little has happened over the past decade to move that approach forward. However, suborbital flights carrying scientific and commercial payloads have found a market given the reusable nature of the flights which reduces the costs.

SpaceX, led by Elon Musk with its Falcon line of launch vehicles, entered the field committed to developing a reliable, less expensive, alternative to the existing expendable launch vehicle fleet of the United States and, by extension, the world. Progress has come with several successful flights, including taking payloads to the ISS as part of NASA programs supporting commercial alternatives to supplying the space station. Orbital Sciences lags behind but has now started its launches to the ISS, meaning that both vendors are now performing what was a critical shuttle mission. This translates into a reality that NASA will not be going back to ISS support missions; the SLS, once operational, could fly payloads and crew to the ISS, but that will not be its primary mission as it was for the Space Shuttle.

The United States can “afford” to do space but there is no political consensus or even significant political movement advocating such activity. There is no objection to doing something in regards to space, but the dispute over future missions reflects the collapse of the von Braun consensus that drove the US space program from its beginnings.

Most have forgotten that the space shuttle’s original purpose was to be the heavy lifter supplying and building the earth orbiting space station envisioned in the Space Task Force report in 1969 that was rejected by President Nixon but later revived in 1972 as a standalone program, with no space station in the immediate future. What has happened is that the US government is vacating the space launch field except for national security payloads, which leaves NASA using the DOD-derived launchers from United Launch Alliance—the Delta and Atlas in various configurations—while it awaits the development of the SLS. The SLS, however, is impractical except for the heaviest payloads, being developed for missions to the Moon and beyond, preferably beyond. The beyond part is not clear given congressional hostility to the various variations of the asteroid missions put forth by the administration.

The announcement of the newest “National Space Transportation Policy” by the White House is indicative of this new reality. Two quotes illustrate the new order, especially the second:

“Implement partnerships with the private sector to develop safe, reliable, and cost effective commercial spaceflight capabilities for the transport of crew and cargo to and from the International Space Station and low-Earth orbit, consistent with safety and mission requirements and taking into account practical means to address technical and programmatic risk.” (p. 3)

“Refrain from conducting United States Government space transportation activities that preclude, discourage, or compete with U.S. commercial space transportation activities, unless required by national security or public safety;” (p.4)

What has occurred is a major change in US space policy, where the private sector is now given an open door to compete in ways an earlier generation only dreamed would ever occur. For low Earth orbit, the way is now clear for private sector engagement, a reality furthered by the NASA announcement that a Bigelow module would be employed at the ISS in 2015 as a test bed for possible use in future missions. For NASA, the future is one oriented outward except for the Earth Science missions. A replacement space station remains a pressing but not immediate question, although the maintenance demands may grow as the station age (see “ISS Next: chasing humanity’s future in space and the ‘next logical step’”, The Space Review, December 19, 2011.) Proposals to extend the station out to 2028 may be approved, but any successor presently will be internationally funded and built barring a dramatic immediate change in the US political climate. China’s ambitions to build its own space station do not appear to change that reality.

International space policy

For the United States, the collapse of its space exploration program has occurred despite much rhetoric that we will do more; the problem is that doing more requires funding at levels that frankly are not politically possible or sustainable even if a short term fix is agreed upon. The United States can “afford” to do space but there is no political consensus or even significant political movement advocating such activity. There is no objection to doing something in regards to space but the dispute over future missions reflects the collapse of the von Braun consensus that drove the US space program from its beginnings after the launch of Sputnik. Moreover, the reality is that going to Mars will be expensive as will be establishing bases on the lunar surface: the question now raised is why and what is the benefit of doing either?

These questions were not raised initially during Apollo but popped up later as the economy stalled in the 1960s. Private initiatives tout greater efficiency and ability to accomplish the Mars mission but more recent iterations find them requesting NASA funding for the bulk of the endeavor, undermining their credibility as the alternative way to explore the solar system. The answers using public moneys have not been as easy to make credible in an era where the intense motivations created by the Cold War no longer exist. Finding a way forward will be difficult since advocates have to steer between the shoals of promising too much for too little and those who see any government expenditures for space exploration as unacceptable. The latter see such spending as waste given the growing US debt or alternatively see the pressing needs domestically that go unmet as a higher priority.

Evidence to this collapse can be seen in two fashions. One is the question of what and where to go regarding human exploration and the other is the crisis over space science expenditures, especially missions to other locations in the solar system. The NASA administrator recently retracted comments that were reported that the United States could no longer fund flagship missions. The reality is that after the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA is confronting continued budget contraction and program attrition as missions end with replacements likely to lag behind. Loss of momentum is a real prospect across the board despite the recognition that excellent work is being done. There is no evidence in Congress as a whole of any commitment to space exploration whether human or robotic; the program is irrelevant in their larger scheme of things. When budgets improve, there are possibilities for a resurgence in support for such endeavors but the human capital may have moved on and not be recoverable. Space scientists are already finding that their best bet is to catch on with other programs’ missions: NASA may be able to fund such efforts rather than go it alone. International cooperation is one avenue to the future but one where US priorities become secondary and subject to the vetoes of others.

The second event was the December landing of the Chinese Chang’e-3 on the lunar surface and the image of its Yutu or “Jade Rabbit” rover moving out across the lunarscape. The feat is a major one for China but here the focus is what response the US will make: none, it appears. The motivations that drove the Cold War are dead and this is a symbol of that death, since a competitor achieved a major milestone for their space program. Chinese rhetoric has surfaced talking about the Moon as a base for missiles to be fired at Earth in some future conflict, a rehash of similar rhetoric at the dawn of the Space Age. In each case, the landing and the rocket rhetoric, the American view was been there, done that, rather than great alarm and the fostering of an invigorated space race with a new adversary.

The future of US space activities, including space exploration, is not bleak, but it will be different. NASA still serves a purpose, although the justifications for its missions have changed over the years.

The point is that the disarray in the space exploration program reflects the fact that the U.S. space program has entered a new era in which new and better justifications must be developed, if possible. Space is now incorporated into the public’s everyday life in a way unimaginable a generation or so ago. GPS is taken for granted rather than an esoteric military program aimed at waging war. GPS has become a public utility much like the roads and sewer systems that make modern life possible and more efficient. Imagining a world without space applications is difficult, as can be seen in the Weather Channel with its continual updates of the weather both domestically and globally, the older generation’s version of the MTV. They remember when the first weather satellite images appeared in newspapers and on television, showing weather events such as hurricanes never seen before in their grandeur and power.


The future of US space activities, including space exploration, is not bleak, but it will be different. NASA still serves a purpose, although the justifications for its missions have changed over the years. Public agencies are dependent on public funding, meaning public support, a truism often forgotten by space advocates. The world of the Cold War with its military threat and pursuit of national prestige at almost any cost is gone. Space activities still are prestigious but no longer exclusive to only a few states but are accomplished by a variety of states whose purposes often contradict or oppose the United States. The American public does not perceive an existential threat to US survival as it did during the Cold War. Therefore, other factors become more critical.

The economic crisis that began in 2008 and extends to the present has undermined the budget margins that made space program affordable, despite continued deficit funding of the federal government regardless of political party in office. The crisis was so severe that it attacked Americans’ sense that everything would work out. Different groups reacted in diverse ways. Many pushed for retrenchment that makes discretionary programs such as NASA expendable or, at least, clearly less important. Also, the easy things had been done regarding the von Braun paradigm, and the cost factors became increasingly more critical in vetoing a direct mission to Mars. You saw that first in 1969 when President Nixon rejected the Space Task Force recommendations that included going to Mars, and in 1989 when President George H.W. Bush’s Space Exploration Initiative vanished from sight once Congress got the first budget projection of how much it would cost: $400 billion. When George W. Bush resurrected an Apollo-type mission in the Vision for Space Exploration in 2004, which morphed into a return to the Moon first, the rising budget and a sense of déjà vu negated the political ability to get the program funded. The Global War on Terror, followed by the economic crisis, has sapped any political will to engage in large-scale space programs. With President Barack Obama’s arrival in office, the air was out of the balloon, a reality reinforced by the Augustine Committee’s espousal of a “flexible path” regarding future human space exploration—their recommendation largely based on a judgment that the money was not there.

The US has gotten off the fast track with regards to its national space program, reflecting both budgetary and intellectual exhaustion. The latter is more debilitating because it means there is a hiatus while the US decides what it wishes to do in the future regarding space activities. Some activities will continue but at lower levels of funding, such as space science missions. Ironically, the quest for water as the cradle of potential life keeps the focus on Mars while Europa, with its apparent oceans of water, languishes on the backlist of possibilities. Going to Mars has great appeal but the costs, despite rosy scenarios, are still daunting. In addition, the physical hazards of outer space become more dangerous the longer you are in transit to Mars, never mind the return flight. The question is what is worth going there: merely reaching the other side of the mountain is insufficient justification for many in the public. Pioneering is not dead, just more expensive. Merely sustaining the present in the form of the ISS is likely to be expensive as the station ages, as the ongoing repairs of the station’s coolant pump demonstrates. The only virtue the space program has politically for Congress is that no one loses office (except in a few districts) for failure to support the space program, but that also means there is no great incentive to push the envelope forward. Approval of the space shuttle (Nixon) and the space station (Reagan) by two different presidents was possible in part because the actual costs were pushed off onto their successors. Well, the costs have come home and the US space program labors under that burden. Thus, the new era arrives not with a flourish but with a sense of dread. Better days are ahead but will come after some travail.