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NewSpace 2008 panel
Paul Carliner, Brett Alexander, and Eric Sterner discuss the prospects of the Vision for Space Exploration in the next administration at the NewSpace 2008 conference on July 17. (credit: J. Foust)

Uncertain futures

It has become almost cliché to claim that we are at a “turning point” in history for a particular topic. Determining what really is a turning point can be difficult until well after the fact, when the consequences of that change become clear. Nonetheless, one can make the argument that the current period—from now through, perhaps, the end of the decade—represents at least a potential turning point for civil and commercial spaceflight. The impending retirement of the Space Shuttle marks an end of an era for civil spaceflight, while the future of the Vision for Space Exploration hinges on how the next president views the effort. The commercial sector appears to be on the edge of breakthroughs in suborbital human spaceflight and crew and cargo servicing of the ISS, but with no guarantees that the technologies and markets will develop as hoped.

How these sectors could—and should—change in the next several years was a central topic of the NewSpace 2008 conference held by the Space Frontier Foundation in Crystal City, Virginia, last week. Most of the speakers in the panels during the conference would agree that civil and commercial space is at, or at least approaching, a turning point. However, the magnitude and the direction of that impending change remain uncertain.

What’s in a name

Certainly the biggest issue in the civil space arena, if not in space policy overall, is the future of the Vision for Space Exploration, given the change in presidential administrations next year and the limited, sometimes conflicting, information that the candidates have provided on the issue to date. Will a President McCain or a President Obama continue the general trajectory of the Vision, or delay or even eliminate some of its provisions?

“Neither administration, neither candidate, really knows what their future is in space,” said Eric Sterner, a former House staffer, during a panel discussion about the future of the Vision. “I don’t think they’ve thought about, I don’t think they’ve made a decision. And if history is a guide, they probably won’t think about it and make decisions until a year into the administration.”

“Neither administration, neither candidate, really knows what their future is in space,” said Sterner.

Specifically, Sterner said that future of civil space policy won’t be clear in the next administration until it selects its science advisor and the director of the Office of Management and Budget. Another factor will be the Vice President and the role he or she has in the administration: prior to the current administration “space kind of fell into the lap of the Vice President’s office, and they had some influence over the outcome,” he noted. Finally, just how long it will take the administration to take actions like nominating a new NASA administrator (or deciding to retain Mike Griffin) will provide a clue about their plans. “If it takes a year to get to NASA,” he warned, “then I think you’re looking at a scenario of basic indifference and probably steady state or declining budgets.”

Space “may be a third-tier issue” for the presidential candidates in general, said former White House staffer Brett Alexander, adding that it may be more like a second-tier issue in places with a strong NASA presence like Florida, Ohio, and Virginia, all battleground states in the November election. “The question they have to address is, ‘NASA and space for what?’” he said. “Earth science—climate change—is far higher on the agenda for both presidential candidates.”

“On the exploration side, the question that they will have to address is: if not this, then what?” Alexander said. He cautioned that truncating the Vision to simply Ares 1 and Orion would effectively kill off commercial alternatives to ISS resupply, with long-term consequences. “If NASA remains focused on low Earth orbit, I think we are stuck there again for 15 or 20 years.”

The survival of the Vision into the next administration might require something of a rebranding exercise. “If we’re going to talk about sustainability, in my opinion we need to use a different vocabulary,” said Paul Carliner, a former Senate staffer. “I think we need to stop calling it the Vision for Space Exploration. A ‘vision’ is a word that connotes something of a plan for the future. This is not a plan for the future. This is a program that is ongoing, is current.” He noted the policy’s endorsement by Congress in the NASA Authorization Act of 2005 and the spending of billions of dollars on Ares, Orion, and other exploration-related programs. “That’s not a vision, that’s a program.”

Carliner suggested that the program be called Constellation, a name currently used for the transportation-related aspects of the Vision. That name, he said, would resonate with the public today in much the same way that Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo did in the 1960s, “names that to this day still have an iconographic status with the American public and the world.” Calling the current effort the Vision could be damaging to its long-term prospects, he said. “If we refer to it as that, nothing more than a plan for the future, then it becomes very easy not to sustain it.”

“I think we need to stop calling it the Vision for Space Exploration,” said Carliner. “A ‘vision’ is a word that connotes something of a plan for the future. This is not a plan for the future. This is a program that is ongoing, is current.”

He also argued that the space community needs to do more to educate the public, as well as legislators, about the importance of the exploration effort. “There’s been, in my opinion, very little or no outreach on the part of the community—contractors, people in the business—to reach out to the American public and explain what space exploration is about and what its value is and why it’s necessary,” he said. The 50th anniversary of NASA in October, which coincides with the launch of the STS-125 Hubble servicing mission, provides a golden opportunity for the agency and the space community. “The world media attention is going to be focused in October on space, and I think that should be, rather than a moment of self-congratulation, a moment to turn outward and use it as an opportunity to educate the American people and Congress.”

“NewSpace isn’t”

As in past years, much of the conference was devoted to looking at the promise of commercial, primarily entrepreneurial, space, including the development of suborbital spacecraft, space station resupply vehicles, and other potential markets and applications. There was, by many speakers, at least a sense of guarded optimism about the next decade as these markets develop, including the long-hoped-for “Netscape moment”: when a NewSpace company has an IPO or acquisition that generates a lot of wealth for shareholders and thus attracts the attention of more conventional investors, in much the same way that Netscape’s IPO in 1995 triggered the wave of investment into Internet companies.

Not everyone at the conference, though, shared that degree of optimism. “I just love the optimism that I hear here,” said Charlie Chafer, CEO of Space Services, Inc. (SSI), which sells memorial spaceflight services under the Celestis name, during a panel that addressed what the next ten years would bring. “And I have to say that none of this stuff is going to happen in ten years. I believe all this stuff is going to happen, but I’ve had a payload sitting on a Falcon rocket for five years. So let’s take a quick step back and think about timeframes here.”

The idea of entrepreneurial space ventures is not new, Chafer reminded the audience. “I have a statement, which is, ‘NewSpace isn’t,’” he said. He argued that we’re in the third generation of commercial space ventures, after early efforts like OTRAG and an earlier incarnation of SSI in the late 1970s and early 1980s, followed by the wave of launch vehicle ventures in the 1990s. “We were all going to be rich by now,” he quipped.

“It does feel different” now, he acknowledged, “and I hope it, in fact, is different.” That doesn’t mean, though, that progress will be anywhere near as fast as some of the industry’s proponents expect. He noted the slow progress in the development of suborbital and orbital launch vehicles, and expressed skepticism about companies that say they expect to win the Google Lunar X Prize in the next couple of years, in part because of the regulatory paperwork needed to simply secure frequencies for communications with a commercial lunar spacecraft. “You won’t be anywhere near through the FCC in two years,” he said. “It’s so mundane that all of us big thinkers don't think much about it, but when you’re building a business plan, people tend to go, ‘What about that?’”

“And I have to say that none of this stuff is going to happen in ten years,” said Chafer. “I believe all this stuff is going to happen, but I’ve had a payload sitting on a Falcon rocket for five years. So let’s take a quick step back and think about timeframes here.”

Roger Launius, senior curator at the National Air and Space Museum’s Division of Space History, sounded a similar cautionary note. He noted that it took decades, and over 50 failed attempts, before the British were able to establish a successful foothold in North America at Jamestown. “It was a long, slow, 40-to-50-year process before anything serious resulted by the British in North America, in spite of the fact that there had already been demonstration by the Spanish that you could be successful in the Americas and reap enormous wealth and benefit by doing so,” he said. “We are in a situation today where no one has demonstrated the reaping of enormous wealth in space, yet. We still haven’t seen that bonanza that we all think is around the corner.”

“We do need to be careful when we think that it’s all around the corner, it’s all going to be easy,” he said. “Based upon our history, when you start looking at a lot of these sorts of things, you’re talking many years out, and a lot of failure in between.”

Although there was some skepticism about when commercial space ventures will break out, there was general agreement that it was only a matter of time before it did happen. “I think commercial space has, if not a fundamental role, perhaps the fundamental role, in creating the spacefaring civilization that we all want to see,” said Alan Stern, a planetary scientist and former associate administrator for science at NASA, in a luncheon address at the conference. “The question is, how do we accomplish that?” Answering that question—how—will help answer that other question—when.