The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

NSRC 2020

US Capitol
As the dome of the US Capitol undergoes renovations, some are seeking to upgrade space advocacy efforts with a new emphasis on space development and settlement. (credit: Architect of the Capitol)

Rebooting space advocacy

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For many years, space advocacy has been tied most directly in the United States to NASA, and in particular its budget. In recent years, for example, we’ve seen efforts like “Save NASA” (see “Dysfunctional space advocacy”, The Space Review, November 23, 2009) and “Penny for NASA,” which argued that NASA’s budget should be increased to one percent of the federal budget, roughly twice its current level. Those, and prior similar efforts, not only failed to achieve their goals, they didn’t even come close.

Grassroots advocacy, though, can go beyond blunt force efforts to raise NASA’s overall budget. Last week, a new coalition of eleven organizations announced plans to seek specific policy initiatives largely unrelated to the overall NASA budget—or even to NASA itself—in a bid to advance goals of space settlement and development. That effort comes days after an unrelated, but like-minded, closed-door meeting in Washington to discuss making settlement and development clear goals of human spaceflight.

A new alliance and its policy agenda

On February 25, the Alliance for Space Development (ASD) held a press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. ASD is a loose coalition of eleven organizations, led by the National Space Society (NSS) and Space Frontier Foundation. The other nine are a mix of groups both well-known, like The Mars Society and Students for the Exploration and Development of Space, and obscure, like the Space Development Steering Committee and Students on Capitol Hill.

“We are pushing very specific pieces of legislation,” said Miller.

What this diverse group of organizations did share was a desire to specifically promote space exploration and development. “The vision of the Alliance for Space Development is the development of large-scale and permanent use of space to improve civilization, including the human settlement of space,” said Mark Hopkins, chairman of the NSS’s executive committee.

ASD plans to work primarily on policy issues to achieve that vision. “We are pushing very specific pieces of legislation,” said Charles Miller, a long-time space advocate who is the ASD’s executive coordinator.

One of those pieces of legislation is a bill, expected to be introduced by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) in the near future, that would amend the National Aeronautics and Space Act. That amendment, Miller said, would “make space settlement and development an official part of not only NASA, but our nation’s purpose.”

A second, and far more ambitious, piece of legislation ASD is promoting is a “Cheap Access to Space Prize,” or CATS act. That bill, a draft of which ASD released at the press conference, would offer $3.5 billion in prizes to private ventures that successfully develop and demonstrate reusable launch vehicles (RLVs).

Specifically, the bill offers $1 billion to the first fully reusable launch vehicle, capable of placing a payload of one metric ton (including two people) into orbit, which flies two missions in one week. A second $1-billion prize would go to the first RLV, with the same payload requirement, that flies ten times in ten weeks. Both milestones would also have $750-million second prizes.

Miller said the proposed prize act is based on the assumption that economics, and not technology, has limited the development of RLVs in recent years. “We have, in most respects, the fundamental technology,” he said. “We think the number one issue is closing the business case.” Offering a prize, he argued, can help close that business case and stimulate development of RLVs.

The additional advantage of the prize, he said, is that the public would only have to pay if a company is able to achieve the goals, unlike past RLV development programs that went through billions of dollars without achieving an operational vehicle. “It’s fiscally responsible for the American taxpayer: if it doesn’t work, they don’t pay anything; if it does work, it immediately pays for itself.”

Unlike Rohrabacher’s space settlement amendment, the CATS bill doesn’t have a sponsor yet. A goal for the ASD this year is it find sponsors to get some form of the bill introduced later this year. That proposed act will be one of the major agenda items of March Storm, a revived grassroots space lobbying effort that will take place later this month after going on hiatus for the last several years.

ASD is also advocating for what it calls a “gapless” transition from the International Space Station to future commercial space stations. Last year, NASA announced plans for extending ISS operations from 2020 to at least 2024. In the long term, though, both space advocates and NASA itself hope that the ISS can be replaced by one or more commercial space stations, rather than another government-owned station.

“We need to make sure now, about ten years out, that we have a seamless transition to commercial space stations,” Miller said. To help achieve that goal, ASD wants NASA to pursue an initiative modeled on the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program for commercial cargo, where government would support the private development of a commercial habitation and propulsion module that could be installed on the ISS by 2020.

“We are going to announce at the beginning of each year, as we are doing for 2015, very measureable results,” Hopkins said. “At the end of the year, anybody can look and see what we’ve done.”

Miller said that having that commercial module on the ISS in 2020 could not only help ensure that gapless transition, it could also be insurance against any Russian proposals to leave the ISS partnership—and possibly take with it some of the Russian modules at the station. “We should take it seriously and have a backup plan,” he said. (The day before the press conference, Russian officials announced plans to continue participating in the ISS through 2024, but after that detach at least some of their modules for their own proposed station.)

ASD, Miller said, would seek to get a COTS-like program for developing a commercial habitation and propulsion module included in the fiscal year 2017 budget request, due out early next year. “We could do a seamless, low-risk transition to commercial space stations” with this approach, he said.

In addition to the big legislative and policy objectives, ASD has some nearer-term goals as well. It seeks full funding for NASA’s commercial crew and cargo programs for fiscal year 2016. It also advocates for an extension of the “learning period” that restricts the FAA’s ability to enact safety regulations for people flying on commercial spacecraft. That learning period is set to expire in October (see “Issues in commercial launch law”, The Space Review, February 23, 2015).

One thing ASD doesn’t plan to do, though, is seek budget increases for NASA beyond its specific request for commercial crew and cargo funding. “We are not going to go to Congress and suggest that the NASA budget should be increased,” Hopkins said. “Instead, we’re going to talk about how to get more bang for the buck for the money that the government spends on space.”

ASD, of course, is not the first organization to make bold pronouncements about its plans and goals. At last week’s press conference, though, representatives said they would offer a degree of accountability about their efforts. “We are going to announce at the beginning of each year, as we are doing for 2015, very measureable results,” Hopkins said. “At the end of the year, anybody can look and see what we’ve done.”

The ASD legislative agenda announced at the press conference, and posted on its website, represents those goals for 2015. “It’s those four specific agenda items” on the ASD website, Miller said, “whether we make specific, measurable progress on them.” Some of the initiatives, like the CATS prize legislation, may take several years to complete, but he said progress can be measured by whether a bill is introduced, and if so, how many sponsors it has.

US Capitol
Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA), ranking member of the subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee that funds NASA, speaks briefing at an Alliance for Space Development press conference February 25. Charles Miller, executive coordinator of the ASD, stands at the right. (credit: J. Foust)

A summit’s “breathtaking” consensus

Participants also used last week’s ASD press conference to discuss another recent space advocacy event. On February 19 and 20, the Pioneering Space National Summit, held in Washington, brought together more than 100 people from industry, government, and other organizations to discuss the purpose and direction of the nation’s spaceflight efforts.

That invitation-only meeting, closed to the media, resulted in a Pioneering Space Declaration issued last week:

The long term goal of the human spaceflight and exploration program of the United States is to expand permanent human presence beyond low-Earth orbit and to do so in a way that will enable human settlement and a thriving space economy. This will be best achieved through public-private partnerships and international collaboration.

That language was not too different from a section of the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, a similarity some participants said was deliberate to make the new declaration more palatable to policymakers:

The long term goal of the human space flight and exploration efforts of NASA shall be to expand permanent human presence beyond low-Earth orbit and to do so, where practical, in a manner involving international partners.

The summit was criticized in some quarters for its secretive nature, as well as an underlying skepticism that such an event would do much to advance the goals it promulgated. As the ASD press conference, some of those who were there spoke highly of the event.

“It was breathtaking how much consensus there was amongst the entire community,” said Pura.

“It has some very high level people there, very diverse, including some high level people from NASA,” Hopkins said. Others familiar with the event said the agency’s attendees included William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations. Companies at the event included both large, established aerospace firms and smaller, entrepreneurial ones.

“It was breathtaking how much consensus there was amongst the entire community,” said James Pura, president of the Space Frontier Foundation. “It was amazing to see everyone reach that amazing consensus.”

The announcement of the ASD, less than a week after the summit, led some to believe that the two were connected in some way. However, organizers of the summit said after the ASD press conference that the two, while perhaps on the same policy wavelength, were not formally linked.

“While they happened in the same weekly news cycle, it’s very important that people know the Pioneering Space Summit and the new Alliance are two completely different things and were not coordinated at all,” said summit organizer Rick Tumlinson of the New Worlds Institute in a statement Thursday.

In a separate interview, Tumlinson said he went into the summit with no expectation that any sort of consensus statement or other agreement would result. “If we just had a really good conversation, that would be good,” he said.

To encourage discussion, Tumlinson said some contentious topics, like launch vehicles and specific destinations for human spaceflight, were deliberately made off-limits for the summit. “The consensus we achieved on the goal of settlement and development occurred because we specifically did not allow launch issues and destinations to be discussed. In fact, those topics were banned from the room.”

The declaration that emerged from the summit was indeed a consensus outcome, Tumlinson said. “At the end of the second day, there were no ‘no’ votes” on the declaration that was later published, he said.

While the declaration’s website allows people to sign their names in support of it, Tumlinson didn’t disclose how many had signed as of last Thursday, and de-emphasized that element over having others adopt the statement into their planning efforts. “The achievement of the summit should not be allowed to become a tool for one approach or another, but should encompass and inspire everyone who wants to see the frontier opened to human settlement and development,” he said. “How each group and participant then interprets and tries to achieve those goals is entirely up to them.”

“The consensus we achieved on the goal of settlement and development occurred because we specifically did not allow launch issues and destinations to be discussed,” said Tumlinson. “In fact, those topics were banned from the room.”

Another summit organizer, in a separate statement, echoed that sentiment. “In reaching that consensus, the participants understood that various organizations and individuals would continue to promote their own goals after the summit ended,” said Mary Lynne Dittmar. “It is our belief that any such agenda should be carefully evaluated on the merits, including how it contributes to the broad goals we identified in our shared vision for US human spaceflight and exploration.”

At the ASD press conference, the summit declaration’s endorsement of space settlement as a long-term goal for American human spaceflight efforts was embraced. “I’m very happy that our vision was basically was adopted by this group,” said Hopkins, noting that settlement has been a long-running goal of the NSS and a predecessor organization, the L-5 Society, that formed 40 years ago. “Believe me, there was certainly no consensus in 1975 that this was the way to go.”

The same could be said of ASD itself. “It’s remarkable that such diverse groups with such diverse interests could agree on such specific goals and objectives,” said another long-time space advocate, Gary Oleson, at the press conference. “Just a few months ago I was skeptical even two of us could find common cause.”

Whether that common cause and shared objectives can translate to legislative progress remains to be seen. History is not necessarily encouraging, but past efforts have not benefitted from the broad goal and specific action plan this summit and ASD have separately developed.