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Two major space policy victories in Congress in 2004 may well be breakthroughs for humanity’s future in space. (credit: J. Foust)

A tale of two victories

The start of 2005 is a time to look back at 2004, particularly with an eye to what the past twelve months can tell us about the year to come. While there were numerous good and bad news stories in the space community last year, most of these events were actually the fulfillment of seeds that were planted as long as a decade ago, and therefore could be viewed as more of a “lagging” indicator than a signal of a new trend. And while many, if not most, of 2004’s events were significant well beyond their immediate audience, fewer still will be seen by history as “breakthroughs”.

For example, NASA’s amazing twin robotic rover successes on the Red Planet were the result of JPL rebuilding its Mars exploration program in the late 1990s after an embarrassing series of failures. The more recent arrival of Cassini-Huygens at Saturn harkens back even further, to its initiation as the last of the pre-Dan Goldin, so-called “Battlestar Galactica” planetary probes. To be sure, these and other missions are great scientific achievements, but they don’t really signal a watershed in how we will explore space in the future (Bob Park’s preference for robots over humans notwithstanding.)

Two “good news” space stories of 2004 stand out in particular as possible breakthroughs for humanity’s future in space, perhaps especially because they occurred in a city not always judged as foresighted: Washington, DC.

Likewise, the amazing Ansari X-Prize victory of Mojave Aerospace Ventures’ and Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne was actually the culmination of a decade of hard work by Peter Diamandis and countless others who made the X Prize happen, including all of the contestants and contributors. In some ways the history-making flights of Michael Melvill and Brian Binnie were simply a confirmation of what we already knew—or at least believed—both about what was technically possible for affordable suborbital human spaceflight and about how prizes can spur engineering and economic innovation, albeit above Earth’s atmosphere.

On the other hand, the presence of the Virgin logo on the side of SpaceShipOne during those flights, and the continuing efforts by some X Prize registrants, along with serious non-participants like XCOR Aerospace, to pursue the more lucrative market of suborbital tourism even after the winning of the $10 million X Prize, is hopefully a leading indicator of something much bigger still to happen.

For this discussion, let’s define a “breakthrough” as the achievement of an outcome that not only surpasses previous results, but was actually beyond the realm of prediction. In other words, a breakthrough is when you accomplish something nobody thought was possible. And its greatest significance may be how its attainment changes, or even transforms, what people see as possible thereafter.

In that context, two “good news” space stories of 2004 stand out in particular as possible breakthroughs for humanity’s future in space, perhaps especially because they occurred in a city not always judged as foresighted: Washington, DC. Both of these developments were surprising—and arguably unprecedented—political victories for fragile new space enterprises seeking support from the US Congress in an especially partisan election year.

A new vision is funded

The first of these space policy triumphs was the climactic November approval of NASA’s FY2005 budget request as an initial down payment on the Vision for Space Exploration President George W. Bush had proposed back in January. While neither a unanimous or long-term ratification of this sweeping new agenda, Congress’ provision of both the money and spending flexibility needed to begin this new effort was an incredible victory that few thought possible just months before.

After all, here was a space agency that was still recovering from the tragedy of Columbia’s final reentry and the post-accident investigation. Here was a human spaceflight program that had only just rebuilt its financial credibility three years after a huge cost overrun forced cutbacks and delays in its two-decade-old centerpiece project, the International Space Station. Here was an R&D organization that had invested billions trying to develop a new space transportation system to replace or supplant the aging space shuttle fleet, producing more paper than flying hardware. NASA hardly seemed like an agency that a President seeking reelection during wartime, let alone a Congress, would seemingly reward with the highest funding increase of all non-security programs.

And yet that is exactly what NASA received in the FY2005 omnibus appropriations bill. Why? And what does that portend for the future?

NASA hardly seemed like an agency that a President seeking reelection during wartime, let alone a Congress, would seemingly reward with the highest funding increase of all non-security programs. And yet that is exactly what NASA received in the FY2005 omnibus appropriations bill.

Obviously, like all successes, NASA’s budgetary victory last fall has many “fathers”. Certainly the President and his OMB director’s threat to veto not only the House bill which slashed NASA by well over a billion in July but also a more modest proposed cut during final omnibus negotiations, deserves much of the credit. NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe’s keen understanding of the appropriations process and overall political skills were critical, and will be missed next year. Bipartisan support for the new vision, particularly from Senators Barbara Mikulski, Kay Hutchison, Bill Nelson, and Sam Brownback all made a huge difference. And there’s no substitute for a House Majority Leader weighing in at every critical point during the process.

What is surprising isn’t that all of these powerful players produced the result, but that they all engaged and kept fighting until securing this victory. While NASA has survived budget challenges before, those were all proposed cuts or program terminations. As Machiavelli pointed out centuries ago, it’s comparatively easy to rally a defense of the status quo, but it’s harder to fight to create something new. This was an affirmative victory, a 5% increase in funding for a brand new initiative at a very difficult time.

More importantly, this was not just a new project winning its initial seed funding, independent of all other major NASA programs. This was not just the “next logical step”, as we called the space station back during the FY1985 fight for its kickoff budget of $150 million, requiring no sacrifice by other NASA projects. The Vision announced by President Bush last January included painful reforms: canceling what was left of the Space Launch Initiative, retiring the space shuttle as early as 2010, and depending on international and commercial systems to operate the International Space Station to conduct the scientific and engineering research that will enable significant human exploration of the solar system, particularly beyond cislunar space. Still other NASA programs will not see all of the funding they had expected before January of 2004.

If NASA’s budget had been substantially cut, it would have been interpreted as a defeat for the new vision. Therefore, this budget victory was absolutely necessary for the vision to survive its painful birth, and begin the hard work of implementation.

My point is that this victory wasn’t simple or painless. To be sure, more money is always better than less, so all of the advocates of full funding for NASA were necessarily united in avoiding greater pain. But the omnibus appropriation also granted NASA the flexibility to reallocate spending so as to move forward on the vision. NASA has already used that flexibility to announce cancellation of planned shuttle upgrades and allocate sufficient funding for critical early strategic investments in human and robotic exploration of the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

Finally, let’s be clear: if the political leaders and the multitude of aerospace corporations, space entrepreneurs, nonprofits and active citizens that collectively won this fight had not succeeded, if NASA’s budget had been substantially cut, then that would have been interpreted as a defeat for the new vision. Therefore, this budget victory was absolutely necessary for the vision to survive its painful birth, and begin the hard work of implementation.

A new industry is empowered

The other pro-space political breakthrough of 2004 was, of course, the Congress’ last-minute enactment of the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004 (also known as HR 5382 and, previously, HR 3752). Having been involved in this bill’s tortuous history from the beginning, no one was more surprised than I was on December 8 to get a late-evening phone call from a reporter saying he just saw Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist submit HR5382 for a third reading and passage by unanimous consent . Suddenly I had to switch media-relations gears from spinning apparent defeat to defining the meaning of victory. Let’s just say it was a nice problem to have.

However, what may not be apparent, even to faithful readers of this publication, is just how unusual a victory HR 5382’s enactment was, not just for the nascent commercial human spaceflight industry but for all American commercial space entrepreneurs.

To start with, unlike NASA’s budget success a month earlier, HR 5382 was authorizing legislation, not a must-pass appropriation that only required a simple majority of the House and Senate to approve before going to the President. HR 5382 had to win two-thirds of House members to pass under suspension of the rules, and unanimous consent to get through the Senate. That means any Senator can effectively “veto” a bill. (There’s a reason the United States Senate is sometimes called the graveyard of legislation.)

Furthermore, nothing terrible was going to happen if HR 5382 didn’t become law. The five-year renewal of indemnification authority had already been passed in a separate bill, at the request of the ELV industry. The Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of the Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation wasn’t going to shut down, because it was funded in Department of Transportation’s appropriation, contained in the same omnibus bill as NASA.

Final Senate passage of HR 5382, while important and valuable, wasn’t absolutely necessary. Because Congress didn’t have to do this, all the hard work by members and staff of crafting, negotiating, and fighting over and over again to save this bill shows that they really wanted to help this industry succeed.

Most significantly, a failure to enact HR 5382 wouldn’t have irreparably harmed the space tourism industry. After all, the FAA had already licensed two passenger-carrying RLVs, and senior FAA officials assured interested parties that if the legislation failed, they would still regulate and promote the new industry, including flights carrying people for compensation, using their existing authority under the Commercial Space Launch Act, informally guided by the House of Representatives’ overwhelming (402-1) passage of HR 3752 in March of 2004.

For all of these reasons, final Senate passage of HR 5382, while important and valuable, wasn’t absolutely necessary. That ironic truth made the bill’s successful enactment into law—specifically Public Law 108-492—even more significant. Because Congress didn’t have to do this, all the hard work by members and staff of crafting, negotiating, and fighting over and over again to save this bill shows that they really wanted to help this industry succeed. That, in turn, is a huge affirmation for the newest generation of American space entrepreneurs, particularly RLV developers hoping to open up the adventure of spaceflight to private citizens.

Think about it: this issue was important enough to the chairmen of the House Science Committee and its space subcommittee to risk embarrassment by making a “space tourism” bill one of their top legislative priorities in the 108th Congress, and risking defeat by forcing through a House-Senate compromise over active opposition from another committee’s Democratic leaders during the lame duck session. It was important enough for a Senator from Oklahoma to fight for his state’s new spaceport and constituent companies and improve the legislation. It was important enough for the dedicated staff of the departing Senior Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee—not historically a champion of space commercialization—to help craft a bill that could pass Senate muster. And it was important enough for the incoming Senate Democratic Leader to personally convince three Senators to remove “holds” on HR 5382 in the closing hours of the Congress, allowing the bill to become law.

So how do these victories bode for 2005?

One ironic impact of these two independent—but arguably synergistic—political victories for America’s future in space is that they raise the bar for the future. As I said before, one of the surest signs of a breakthrough is that it expands the realm of what is possible.

Winning full funding for NASA in a tough year like 2004 means it is possible for a President and Congress to make investing in a new and better space program a high priority. Enacting legislation to create regulatory and policy clarity so rich people can fly into space means that new space companies can be as politically effective as aerospace contractors.

One ironic impact of these two independent—but arguably synergistic—political victories for America’s future in space is that they raise the bar for the future.

More importantly, both of these victories create huge implementation challenges for their respective beneficiaries. NASA has to walk the talk now. It must show that it can reform itself by embracing the Aldridge Commission recommendations and reaching out to the new commercial space industry. Likewise, the FAA has to create a whole new regulatory regime for human spaceflight, and craft an experimental permit regime that will ease the burden for R&D of new suborbital RLVs. In both cases, industry large and small will have to step up and perform well for taxpayers, investors, and customers.

Sometimes winning creates a lot more work than losing. But it’s a nice problem to have. This should be an interesting year, thanks largely to two surprising political breakthroughs in 2004.


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