The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Robert Bigelow, seen here speaking at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight in October, called on the incoming Trump Administration earlier this month to effectively double NASA’s budget. (credit: J. Foust)

Commercial space in the next administration

Bookmark and Share

In the days and weeks since Donald Trump’s election, the space community has tried to figure out what his incoming administration might mean for space policy. That’s focused in large part on NASA, from parlor games guessing who the agency’s next administrator might be to concerns his administration will seek to slash NASA’s Earth science programs, a topic that got fresh attention last week even through there have been no new developments on that issue.

“It is no surprise that NASA needs a greater allowance just to offset the politics, much less what’s needed to really get going,” Bigelow said.

NASA, though, is not the only space-related issue for the next administration to consider. Companies and commercial space advocates wonder what changes, if any, he might make to policies and programs that affect them, not just at NASA but also the FAA, NOAA, and other government agencies. While the campaign professed support for public-private partnerships, how they will be used isn’t clear.

The first major commercial space conference since the election took place just a week later in Houston. The Space Commerce Conference and Exposition, or Spacecom, was primarily about how space capabilities can serve other industries, much like last year’s event (see “Expanding the space industry”, The Space Review, November 30, 2015). But, understandably, there was a lot of discussion about what the new administration might mean for various policies and programs.

Bigelow’s big bet

A keynote speaker on the conference’s final day, November 17, was Robert Bigelow, founder of commercial space habitat developer Bigelow Aerospace. His speech had the relatively bland title of “Investing in Space Commerce.” He kicked off the speech by setting low expectations. “Nothing I’m going to say this morning is going to be the least bit controversial,” he said.

Bigelow has a dry sense of humor. “My feeling is that Christmas arrived early this year, for the United States and, as I do believe will eventually be proven, for NASA. Christmas arrived on November the eighth,” he said less than a minute later, referring to Election Day.

That Christmas present, he believed, would come in the form of increased funding for NASA. That additional funding, he said, would allow NASA to do more, and do it more quickly, but also counter what he called “programs that are not engineered for efficiency but are engineered to drag on and on just to serve special corporate and political interests.”

“It is no surprise that NASA needs a greater allowance just to offset the politics, much less what’s needed to really get going,” he said.

He proposed that the Trump Administration should provide that greater allowance to NASA. “I propose that NASA should have, starting in fiscal year 2019, an annual budget equal to at least one percent of total yearly federal spending,” he said. NASA’s proposed 2017 budget would give the agency $19 billion, less than half a percent of overall spending. “This is not only not too much to expect, but is essential.”

Part of that additional money would be used to counter those programs “engineered to drag on,” he said. However, he also suggested the additional funds be used for exploration of the Moon, done in cooperation with the private sector. “The new White House needs to make a real commitment to this nation’s space future, to put a stake in the ground for American space global leadership, to put a stake in the ground for lunar bases, lunar surface exploration, and development of private sector lunar industries.”

“NASA needs to be a strong and diverse customer of private space industry,” he added. “Having NASA as an anchor tenant or major customer is not only strategically correct, to secure the beginning of this process, but it is totally appropriate and in line with all other government agencies renting buildings, airplanes, cars, et cetera, from the commercial sector.”

Bigelow, who has long talked about establishing lunar bases, said his interest in the Moon was based on economics. “The reason that I’m focusing on the Moon is because the business case for the Moon is potentially substantial compared to the business case for Mars,” he said. “And the financial requirements are of no comparison.”

Bigelow explained he felt the massive increase in NASA’s budget was affordable given the increase in overall economic growth he felt the administration would generate. “With this increase, the United States can easily afford NASA’s one percent, and even more,” he claimed.

“The new White House needs to make a real commitment to this nation’s space future, to put a stake in the ground for American space global leadership, to put a stake in the ground for lunar bases, lunar surface exploration, and development of private sector lunar industries,” Bigelow said.

Bigelow’s support for Trump is not surprising: early in the year, in a brief foray into social media, Bigelow declared his support for Trump during the early phases of the race for the Republican party nomination. “What this country needs is an inspirational space program. I’ll bet @realDonaldTrump could do it,” he tweeted from a now-shuttered personal account in January.

His unabashed support for Trump left some in the audience perplexed, particularly after a divisive election that showed no signs of reconciliation. “Do you see any worrisome historical parallels of a nation becoming technologically the greatest on Earth while developing an ideology of intolerance and suppression of religious minorities?” one audience member asked Trump during a Q&A session, an inquiry that prompted scattered applause.

Bigelow responded with a discussion of “two interesting graphs” of civilization, one of technological progress and one of “spiritual maturity.” He said he was “bothered by the inconsistency between those two pictures” but didn’t directly address the concerns of the questioner.

His proposal is, for now, just that: a proposal, with no signs that the incoming Trump Administration supports, or is even aware, of Bigelow’s idea. Bigelow said after his speech that he had not yet had discussions with the transition team about his proposal.

Moreover, even if federal spending increases, there will be considerable competition from other programs. Trump, in comments in his victory speech in the early morning hours of November 9, once again mentioned infrastructure improvements as a priority for him. With that, and likely plans to increase defense spending, other discretionary programs, like NASA, could be squeezed.

Bigelow, though, was optimistic that increased economic growth would generate additional revenue that could go to NASA. “If you have a growing economy, it lifts all boats,” he said.

Just two days earlier, in a video aired at the conference’s opening ceremonies, a member of Congress was more skeptical. Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), chairman of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, whose district includes NASA’s Johnson Space Center, acknowledged that NASA received a “pittance” of the federal budget. But Babin wasn’t looking for the massive increase that Bigelow proposed.

“As much as I would be thrilled to see NASA’s budget double, we have to be realistic, and ensure that the taxpayers’ dollars we currently receive are prudently focused on the right missions,” Babin said.

Staying the course

While Bigelow made his Hail Mary bid for a doubled NASA budget, a panel a day earlier in the conference focused on other issues that could affect commercial space that should be priorities for the administration in the next two years. The panel focused primarily on continuing existing issues that could benefit the industry.

George Nield, associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the FAA, reiterated his interest in transferring much of the space situational awareness work currently done by the US Air Force to a civil agency like his (see “New approaches for managing space traffic”, The Space Review, October 24, 2016.)

“The single most important issue that I would like to talk about today has to do with the need to quickly transition from a military-operated system to a civil space traffic system that would focus on enhancing the safety of space operations and preserving the space environment,” he said.

Others focused on the need to modernize and revise regulations. “We’ve been building, arguably, for the last 30-some-odd years, on terrific statutory and regulatory work,” said Courtney Stadd, who handles Washington operations and business development for TIP Technologies and previously worked for several federal agencies, including NASA.

He specifically recalled development of commercial remote sensing regulations in the early 1990s, which some in the industry are finding increasingly dated. “It is time to modernize and upgrade them,” he said.

“My theme first and foremost for the new administration,” Stadd said, “is to do no harm.”

Regulatory reform of any kind is nowhere near as flashy as, say, calling for a doubling of NASA’s budget, but others in the industry see it as essential. “It is not something that gets people up in the morning,” acknowledged Caryn Schenewerk, senior counsel and director of government affairs at SpaceX. “But, it is something that affects what we do after we get up every morning.”

She complemented the FAA for handling the growing launch and reentry activities of companies like SpaceX, but said that Nield’s office needed help pushing through efforts to streamline regulations so they did not “fit square pegs into round holes.” That also included, she said, additional resources for the office, which the FAA has sought in budget requests in recent years.

Jim Muncy, principal at PoliSpace, cited as another priority ongoing efforts to establish a regulatory regime for so-called “non-traditional” commercial space activities, from satellite servicing to lunar landers, that are not covered by existing licensing systems. Earlier this year Moon Express won approval for a lunar lander mission through the FAA’s payload review process, but that is widely seen as a stopgap for a permanent solution sought by both industry and government (see “Landers, laws, and lunar logistics”, The Space Review, June 13, 2016).

Muncy, in his comments at the panel, proposed an approach that would give less emphasis to missions beyond Earth orbit. “I would suggest that the way the new administration should do this is that people who are launching, for example, satellite refurbishment or satellite orbital maneuvering or other things that are going to be in the busier area of low Earth orbit or geosynchronous orbit should have slightly more muscular activity by the federal government,” he said. “But if you’re going beyond Earth orbit, there could be just a registry.”

One panelist said he would be happy just for the new administration to continue some of the pro-commercial space policies of previous ones. Chad Brinkley, a business development executive with NanoRacks, noted his company has benefited from Space Act Agreements with NASA that have given the company access to the International Space Station.

“What we’re hoping to see going forward in the new administration is continuing that trend,” he said, including efforts to transition and repurpose the ISS itself.

Whether the incoming Trump Administration will take on any of those issues isn’t clear: the campaign offered only high-level details about its approach to commercial space, never diving into the deep details like regulation of non-traditional space activities or transition of space traffic management responsibilities. It’s possible those efforts may continue under the radar of the administration, particularly with many of the same advocates for those changes remaining in Congress, where legislation will be needed in some cases to enact them.

That seemed to suit the panelists just fine, given a reticence to seek major changes in commercial space policy by the next administration. “My theme first and foremost for the new administration,” Stadd said, “is to do no harm.”