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27 Oct 14 18:44:00 EDT

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PBS Showdown: Commercial vs NASA

Michael Griffin

Listening tonight to Bretton Alexander, President of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, debate former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin on PBS was a case study of sound bites versus informed opinion. I don’t write that to be harsh–it’s just my own personal observation.

While Alexander, who has a strong aerospace background, threw-out phrases such as Orion (the Shuttle’s replacement) and Ares I were over-budget and behind schedule, Griffin responded with quotes from the Augustine Committee undercutting those claims. Then Alexander switched to phraseology about new directions, paradigm shift, etc. but got caught by PBS’s Gwynn Ifill when she pointed out that, after canceling Constellation, the U.S. would need Russian or Chinese rockets just to get our astronauts up to a space station of which Americans paid the lion’s share. But it was Griffin’s last point about why commercial human spaceflight can only survive at NASA’s demise when we in the U.S. have had military and civilian air travel working side-by-side since the dawn of aviation for which Alexander had no answer. Not exactly a confidence builder to give up the U.S. program for theirs.

Griffin’s point was an interesting twist of the favorite argument made by those in the commercial spaceflight community, of how the U.S. airmail service spurred civilian aviation, and further stretching the allusion, that space flight is at a tipping point and it’s time for the U.S. government to create the “airmail” equivalent with commercial human space flight and get NASA out of the way.

Bretton Alexander

But even as the U.S. government was subsidizing the evolution of commercial air passenger service through airmail contracts, it none-the-less continued to develop aircraft for its own purposes using the government’s own resources. Further, never in the 1920’s and 1930’s did the government give money to Boeing, Lockheed, Northrop, Curtis and Wright to design and build commercial air traffic aircraft. Back in those days, America was about as close to a capitalist nirvana as any country has ever reached and it was expected that if there was a market for a product…say, commercial air travel, then investors could be found by those fledgling start-up’s to get their aircraft out of the hanger and actually earn that airmail money. Yes, early on, commercial air travel was a money looser. But then, the DC-3 Skytrain was released and became the first airliner to be profitable to fly. After that point, air ticket prices came down, airlines sprung-up and Douglas Aircraft made a boatload of money. Capitalism worked!

But that is not how things have been run when it comes to the commercial space flight business.

The commercial space flight companies all have one thing in common–whether through NASA’s COTS (Commercial Off The Shelf) budget or the Air Force’s various programs, all were funded 100% by either the Air Force or NASA, not by investors and not by the market. None have created a technological break-through that reduces in any meaningful way either risk or cost of launching even an orange into orbit. And there’s a reason even corporate giants such as Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, never mind the little guys like Space Exploration and Orbital, don’t use their own money to fund development of rockets and spacecraft. Because space is very risky, meaning investors are very few, and none of these companies could get even a Volkswagen Beetle into orbit on their own, even with a government subsidy. I do note that SpaceX did, with its own money and an Air Force satellite contract, launched a 450lbs payload in September 2008 on its Falcon 1. But, SpaceX was years behind schedule, millions over budget, and 450lbs is a long way from putting an astronaut into orbit.

I think the members of the commercial space flight companies have gone after NASA’s Constellation Moon program, and its $5 billion in funding, because once that program is gone, the U.S. will be completely dependent upon them to launch astronauts into orbit and they know that, no matter how over budget and behind schedule they are, the commercial companies being the only game in town, Congress will fund them.

But what does it do to our nation’s standing as a space power if these guys fail?

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