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Obama and Musk
While the Obama Administration has been most closely linked to commercial crew and cargo programs, including a visit by President Obama with SpaceX founder Elon Musk at the company’s Cape Canaveral launch site (above), those efforts are based on a foundation of programs and legislation dating back decades. (credit: B. Ingalls/NASA)

Perception vs. reality in NASA’s commercial crew and cargo program

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With the recent rollout of space policy positions of the Romney and Obama campaigns on space, as well as the platform statements of both political parties, many comments and editorials have argued that the Republicans are for “big government” space programs while Democrats, in particular the President, “will go down in history as the man who opened space to the people by letting the private sector take over basic jobs like transport to orbit (and thus helping create a NewSpace commercial industry that opens the frontier),” in the words of one columnist. Is this true or are the perceptions of some space advocacy groups and the Obama campaign white paper’s claims of credit misplaced? This essay will provide some historical context with regards to the development of the policies behind what became known as the commercial crew and cargo program supporting low Earth orbit (LEO) operations and the commercialization of the International Space Station.

The beginnings

Commercial Space Launch Act (1984-Present)

When this act was passed, the White House was occupied by President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, and control of Congress was split: the Democrats were in the majority in the House and the Republicans in the Senate. As part of the Reagan Administration space policy, this act was a key step toward their goals of the eventual commercialization of space. As President Reagan stated during the signing ceremony:

“One of the important objectives of my administration has been, and will continue to be, the encouragement of the private sector in commercial space endeavors. Fragmentation and shared authority had unnecessarily complicated the process of approving activities in space. Enactment of this legislation is a milestone in our efforts to address the need of private companies interested in launching payloads to have ready access to space.”

The sponsor of the bill was House Representative Daniel Akaka (D-HI) with support from members of both political parties. In this bill (as amended several times with amendments from Republicans such as Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Democrats through 2011) it states:

“…private applications of space technology have achieved a significant level of commercial and economic activity and offer the potential for growth in the future, particularly in the United States…to promote economic growth and entrepreneurial activity through use of the space environment for peaceful purposes…to encourage the United States private sector to provide launch vehicles, reentry vehicles, and associated services by – (A) simplifying and expediting the issuance and transfer of commercial licenses; (B) facilitating and encouraging the use of Government-developed space technology; and (C) promoting the continuous improvement of the safety of launch vehicles designed to carry humans, including through the issuance of regulations, to the extent permitted by this [bill]” [Emphasis added]

Through this law, the government began the process of opening up the possibility for not only commercial sector investment in space “endeavors” but also for the promotion of “economic growth… through the use of the space environment”: in other words, the US public law supports space utilization and development, as did the President and Congress.

Commercial Space Act of 1998

In 1998, before the first components of the International Space Station were launched, the Republican-led Congress passed the Commercial Space Act of 1998. President Bill Clinton (a Democrat) signed this bill into law. The purpose of this act was “to encourage the development of a commercial space industry in the United States.” Some of the key areas proposed in this bill to move forward were:

  • Commercialization of the space station (see below)
  • Commercial space launch
  • Launch voucher demonstration programs
  • Administration of commercial space centers (“spaceports”)

The bill included direction for the government to look at commercial space options for those programs led and operated by government agencies. It declared:

“The Congress further declares that free and competitive markets create the most efficient conditions for promoting economic development, and should therefore govern the economic development of Earth orbital space”

While some credit President Obama for “opening up space” for the commercial sector and the citizenry of America, previous bipartisan legislation is where this foundation was laid.

Contrary to what many believe, this bill, sponsored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), shows that before the ISS was assembled, not only the health and vitality of the US commercial space sector, but the economic development of near-Earth space was important enough for the Republican Congress to support into passage. Moreover, President Clinton agreed enough to sign it into law, despite the belief that, as John Logsdon put it, “Space was not a high priority during the eight years of the Clinton administration.”

During this time, the GOP-led Congress directed assessments on how to make “commercial goods and services for the operations, servicing and augmentation of the International Space Station, and in the commercial use of the International Space Station” a reality. This was the genesis of the COTS/CCDev program, way back in 1998.

Commercial Space Transportation Competitiveness Act of 2000

This bill was sponsored by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) during a time when the Republicans held both the House and Senate and also a Presidential election year. This bill stated that its goal was:

“To promote the development of the commercial space transportation industry, to authorize appropriations for the Office of the Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation, to authorize appropriations for the Office of Space Commercialization, and for other purposes….

(1) A robust United States space transportation industry is vital to the Nation's economic well-being and national security;

(2) Enactment of a 5-year extension of the excess third party claims payment provision of chapter 701 of title 49, United States Code (Commercial Space Launch Activities), will have a beneficial impact on the international competitiveness of the United States space transportation industry;

(3) space transportation may evolve into airplane-style operations…” [Emphasis added]

During this time, the ISS was about to receive its first crew and a transition in administrations was approaching. Space transportation as an industry was a major goal of this bill and, as such, paved the way for additional steps needed to allow for national policy and political will to be generated enough for the program office to be supported by NASA, Congress and the White House in the future.

COTS and Commercial Crew Program stands up

HR 2684. Section 434: Space Station Commercial Development Demonstration Program

Also in the year 2000, this section of an appropriations bill sponsored by Rep. James Walsh (R-NY) included a precursor of COTS. This provision states:

“The purpose of this section is to establish a demonstration regarding the commercial feasibility and economic viability of private sector business operations involving the International Space Station and its related infrastructure. The goal will be furthered by the early use of the International Space Station by United States commercial entities committing private capital to commercial enterprises on the International Space Station. In conjunction with this demonstration program, the National Aeronautics and Space demonstration (NASA) shall establish and publish a price policy designed to eliminate price uncertainty for those planning to utilize the International Space Station and its related facilities for United States commercial use.” [Emphasis added]

This section of the bill took up where the others left off and stated that demonstration missions were needed in order to show the economic viability of private sector business operations at the ISS. This bill was also signed into law by President Clinton in 2000.

Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004

At the end of the first term of President George W. Bush (a Republican), the Congress (also under Republican leadership) passed the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004. With this law, the government of the United States declared the goal of:

“…safely opening space to the American people and their private commercial, scientific, and cultural enterprises should guide Federal space investments, policies, and regulations… private industry has begun to develop commercial launch vehicles capable of carrying human beings into space and greater private investment in these efforts will stimulate the Nation’s commercial space transportation industry as a whole…”

The space policy of the US government has long supported commercialization and economic development of near-Earth space; it’s not something new that was created under the vision and leadership of one President or Congress in the last three years.

While the Obama/Biden campaign white paper and some space advocacy groups credit President Obama for “opening up space” for the commercial sector and the citizenry of America, this bipartisan law is where this foundation was laid. Also, in conjunction to this effort, the previous Clinton and Bush National Space Policy documents called for and encouraged the government to increase commercialization of government-run space efforts and the strengthening of the space industrial base and commercial sector. President Obama has continued this through his 2010 National Space Policy and with proposed budget increases to commercial crew and cargo missions. Once this foundation was laid in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, it was time to begin the formal program offices to execute what the Congress and previous policy had directed up through 2005.

Start of the formal programs at NASA: 2005–06

After taking office in the spring of 2005, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin stated his view and his direction to begin an official program office for commercial cargo and crew:

“I believe that with the advent of the ISS, there will exist for the first time a strong, identifiable market for "routine" transportation service to and from LEO, and that this will be only the first step in what will be a huge opportunity for truly commercial space enterprise, inherent to the Vision for Space Exploration. I believe that the ISS provides a tremendous opportunity to promote commercial space ventures that will help us meet our exploration objectives and at the same time create new jobs and new industry.

The clearly identifiable market provided by the ISS is that for regular cargo delivery and return, and crew rotation especially after we retire the shuttle in 2010, but earlier should the capability become available. We want to be able to buy these services from American industry to the fullest extent possible. We believe that when we engage the engine of competition, these services will be provided in a more cost-effective fashion than when the government has to do it. To that end, we have established a commercial crew/cargo project office, and assigned to it the task of stimulating commercial enterprise in space by asking American entrepreneurs to provide innovative, cost effective commercial cargo and crew transportation services to the space station.

NASA does not have a preferred solution. Our requirements will be couched, to the maximum extent possible, in terms of performance objectives, not process. Process requirements which remain will reflect matters of fundamental safety of life and property, or other basic matters. It will not be government "business as usual". If those of you in industry find it to be otherwise, I expect to hear from you on the matter” [Emphasis added]

This and other statements by NASA leadership at the time, with the support of Congress and the National Space Policy, created their Human Space Flight Transition Plan in 2006. In this report it articulates clearly when the formal program for commercial crew and cargo began:

“COTS is a NASA project to stimulate commercial enterprises in space, open new markets, and challenge private industry to provide commercial delivery of crew and cargo to the ISS. The precursor studies for this project were initiated in February 2004 with the project formally commencing in October of 2005”.

While the path to commercial crew and cargo and the development of commercial development of ISS and LEO has been essentially bipartisan, the majority of the legislation have been sponsored by Republican members of Congress and signed and enacted under administrations of both parties. It’s important to note the historical development of the policies and legislative history of commercial crew and cargo as we go into the election. The space policy of the United States government in both the legislative and executive branches have supported commercialization and economic development of near-Earth space; it’s not something new that was created under the vision and leadership of one President or Congress in the last three years. It has taken years of work between the legislative and executive branches, teaming with the entrepreneurial spirit of the American space industry, to get to where we are today and where we hope to go in the future.