The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

TVA dam
By creating a system of dams and other facilities, the TVA helped support the economic development of a depressed region of the US. Could a similar approach work for space commercialization? (credit: TVA)

Move over NASA and make room for the TVA of space

A model for accelerated commercial space development

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The change in NASA strategy to encourage commercial space development is already bearing fruit, with successful launches by SpaceX and the formation of an increasing number of commercial space development firms. However, notwithstanding these early successes, NASA is far from being an ideal vehicle for advancing commercial development of space.

Space pioneers such asteroid mining companies Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources; Golden Spike, which plans commercializing lunar exploration; and Bigelow Aerospace would be joined by many other firms doing even more exciting things if financing were available and if there were a clear legal framework for space industrial development.

NASA’s mission, at its core, is civilian space exploration and the development of technologies and capabilities to enable space exploration. NASA is not an economic development agency.

The US can take the global lead in commercial space development through the formation of a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) of space development to accelerate space industrialization. TVA was formed in May 1933 as a federally chartered corporation to provide navigation, flood control, electricity generation, fertilizer manufacturing, and economic development in an area of the US particularly hard hit by the Great Depression. Space is in an analogous situation. There is an extraordinary abundance of identified resources to meet the needs of nations around the world for energy and sustained job-creating growth. There is no current development of space resources to meet human needs even through rooms full of plans have been crafted to do so and thousands of presentations have been made at countless conferences around the globe.

What would be the benefits of the formation of a “corporation for space development” (CSD) that is separate from NASA? Among many other questions is whether to form CSD on the model of TVA or that of the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization (INTELSAT), initially formed in 1964 as an intergovernmental consortium to foster telecommunications using satellites and privatized after 37 years of operation.

NASA’s mission is not commercial space development

NASA’s mission, at its core, is civilian space exploration and the development of technologies and capabilities to enable space exploration. NASA is not an economic development agency, a utility like INTELSAT, or a trading company such as the Hudson’s Bay Company that was involved in the early development of the Canadian North. NASA is more like a university with its associated technology park that fosters new startup companies commercializing technologies. NASA is certainly not a commercial entity. However, there is a role for government well into the foreseeable future to further the exploration of space to serve US interests as well as to serve the broader interests of humankind.

There is a role for government when dealing with early stages in the deployment of technologies or very large scale problems where there is no clear, near-term commercial value, or where commercial business would benefit from a structure that provides incentives to undertake commercial activity that otherwise would not be commercially viable. NASA has fulfilled a part of this role by contracting for commercial crew for transport to the ISS. Government support in other areas has included tax breaks for solar technology, electric cars, and other new technologies that are in the national interest.

In the case of the TVA, proponents saw a massively depressed region that was richly endowed with rivers. Given flood control improvements, the dammed rivers of the Tennessee Valley provided an excellent source of hydropower that over decades of development lifted the region out of poverty and provided for the development of an aluminum industry as well as the electricity to power the Manhattan Project that was vital to the nation’s defense during World War II. TVA has not been privatized even though its role has expanded considerably beyond the hydropower that formed the base of its original charter. However, CSD could even be designed with privatization in mind when space development has reached a commercial maturity where competition would further advance the benefits to the public.

CSD, together with the Space Mining Bank (see “The asteroid mining bank”, The Space Review, January 28, 2013), can provide a source of financing, as well as the infrastructure and legal framework for accelerated commercial development of space resolving the ambiguities of the 1967 Space Treaty, without formal accession to the Moon Treaty.

The US can form the CSD with an act of Congress similar to the steps taken to form TVA. By structuring the organization as an intergovernmental organization similar to INTELSAT, other nations that wish to take advantage of the benefits of CSD can formally accede to it by paying a membership fee that is proportional to the weight of their economy as a share of the global economy according to International Monetary Fund calculations, but also based on the level of involvement desired by the government desiring membership in CSD. Informational membership would enable a country to attend meetings and have access to information gathered by CSD.

Capabilities required of the CSD to accelerate space industrialization

Space industrialization is the systematic, commercial exploitation of space, in contrast to space exploration, which may be done for commercial reasons but which does not have an immediate commercial purpose. Space industrialization is also more than asteroid mining, which may recover valuable material from an object in space, but which is not part of an industrial economic system. Space industrialization includes the idea of human settlement, whether in habitats in space or on the Moon or other planetary bodies.

The US would benefit significantly through the formation of a federally chartered corporation to advance space commercialization.

Space industrialization would have large-scale returns with the potential to generate millions of jobs, in contrast to space exploration, which may result in technological advancement and may employ hundreds of thousands of people, but which does not have the potential for exponentially increasing returns that is a characteristic of industrial processes involving technologies early in their lifecycle. The expansion of humankind beyond the Earth will require numerous new technologies across the entire spectrum of human activity. The benefits in terms of job creation and human potential would be far more limited through robotic space development alone. People are essential in space for it to have the returns that can assure long-term economic development for the billions of people living on the Earth.

To fulfill its mission CSD will require the following capabilities:

  • Organized as an international, government-owned consortium similar to INTELSAT to meet requirements of the Outer Space Treaty and comply with key provisions of the Moon Treaty that resources be extracted through an international regime. By forming CSD through an Act of Congress, it positions the US for leadership in space development. By opening the consortium to international membership, it meets the requirements specified in the Outer Space Treaty as well as provisions of the Moon Treaty without imposing the need to access to the Moon Treaty, which was earlier opposed by many in the space advocacy movement.
  • Space Development Bank (SPD): a source of financing and a vehicle to comply with requirement that space be developed as the “common heritage of mankind” while simultaneously stimulating commercial development:
    • SPD would have the capability to emit space money backed by space resources assayed by participating commercial partners that are account holders.
    • Claims to space resources, whether for asteroids or specific territorial expanses on the Moon or other planetary bodies, would be filed with the SPD Claims Office. Claims recognized by SPD would have recognized value for financing of space development.
    • Financing for commercial space development would be based on the assayed value of space resources and defined recovery plan to recover same.
    • Resources recovered by account holders could be sold through the Space Resource Market (SRM), a function of SPD. This market could function similarly to institutions such as the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.
    • A method to allocate a portion of resources recovered from space and sold through SRM for uses defined as in compliance with the “common heritage of mankind,” specifically setting aside a defined share of the earnings from space resource recovery that follows a pattern similar to royalty payments to governments for recovered resources from terrestrial mines and oil fields. Countries on Earth defined as poor by recognized bodies such as the World Bank and/or the UN could gain financing for space-related projects that directly assist those countries to meet the needs of their people.
    • A mechanism through cooperation with the IMF, the Federal Reserve, and other central banks to transform “Space Dollars” into currencies useable in transactions in the Earth economy.
    • A mechanism to transform earnings of SDC in the Earth economy, such as from the delivery of electrical power to utilities on the Earth, into Space Dollars useable for space development.
  • Capability to build power stations and electrical power transmission networks in space or on the Moon or other planetary bodies, to provide electrical power to the Earth or to habitats or industrial facilities in space or on the Moon. If a transition country such as India acceded to CSD, an early project could be to build a space-based solar power (SBSP) plant to meet rural energy needs in India as a prototype for larger-scale projects for more developed regions.
  • Capability for space junk cleanup to protect space-based industrial facilities and transport routes to space.
  • Capability to contract with commercial entities, non-profit and public entities to perform functions including but not limited to power plant construction, space transportation, space resource recovery, new technology development, space habitat construction and other functions.
  • Space Development Finance Corporation (SDFC): a space development financing and consulting entity for poorer nations on the model of the International Finance Corporation (IFC). SDFC would work with non-spacefaring nations to develop projects that accelerate their access to space resources with initial targets being electrical power from SBSP, but also industries that create jobs relating to space: communications, space settlement, and education and training for space careers.

Scenarios of CSD development

Scenario 1: The US takes the lead for commercial space development through the Commercial Space Development Act of Congress. India becomes an early partner in CSD with an initial project aimed at developing a prototype SBSP to provide electrical power to a remote, underdeveloped area of India. Other nations follow with eventual accession by most nations on Earth, similar to the pattern of INTELSAT. CSD is headquartered in Chicago.

Now is the time for strong US leadership in the commercial development of space or else risk ceding leadership to others.

Scenario 2: The September 2013 G20 Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, identifies commercial space development as a key driver of global long term economic development and places space industrialization on the agenda of the 2014 G20 Summit, presided by Australia. Australia presses for the development of CSD welcoming other Eurasian members as initial founders. CSD is headquartered in Canberra.

Scenario 3: The EU and Russia recognize the extraordinary value of CSD and form an agreement to form CSD with invitations extended to the US, China, India, Japan, Brazil, Korea, and other spacefaring nations, making CSD an agenda issue for the 2014 G20 Summit in Australia. CSD is headquartered in Riga, Latvia.

CSD initiatives

By 2020 have the capability to:

  • Deliver 1 GW of electrical power to the Earth with an initial project of 100 MW to a remote, presently underserved area of India.
  • Have established the key functions of the CSD and SDB

By 2025:

  • Have a strategy armed with technical means to commercially utilize an asteroid like Apophis, contracting Deep Space Industries, Planetary Resources, and other commercial entities to process Apophis into resources useable for the advancement of humankind into space. Apophis is expected to come within geostationary orbit, 17,000 miles from the Earth in 2029. With a diameter of 325 meters, Apophis is over 15 times as large as the object that exploded over Chelyabinsk on February, which was less than 20 meters in diameter but exploded with a force estimated to be 440 kilotons of TNT, or about 30 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb.


NASA’s mission is not commercial development of space. The US would benefit significantly through the formation of a federally chartered corporation to advance space commercialization. Models for this exist in the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and INTELSAT. CSD would lead to a dramatic expansion of private investment in space development possibly matching the boom of the 1990s. CSD would lead to a clarification of NASA’s mission as space exploration accelerating this mission to achieve bolder, longer term objectives.

CSD would also provide a mechanism to finance space development much as the TVA provided a mechanism to finance economic development of the Tennessee Valley during the Great Depression. The region was abundant with hydropower resources. Dams had to be built to make the benefits of the resources available for economic development of the region. Space is abundant with resources. Lunar mining, asteroid mining, and space-based solar power facilities and in-space habitats must be built to take advantage of space resources for the economic development of Earth and of mankind in space.

By designing CSD as an international consortium of governments, it meets the requirements of the Moon Treaty, Outer Space Treaty, and other international objectives and obligations without necessarily acceding or ratifying the Moon Treaty, thereby clarifying ownership issues and providing a framework for more rapid space commercialization. Multiple scenarios are possible to form CSD. Some are more favorable to US interests, some less. Now is the time for strong US leadership in the commercial development of space or else risk ceding leadership to others.