Reprint of Rick Tumlinson's OpEd in Space News

01/24/06 00:00:00    

By Michael Mealling

Rick Tumlinson sent this opinion piece out about the recent industry concensus statement. It also appeared in Space News.

The Sword, the Ploughshare and the Pocketbook

By Rick N. Tumlinson

From the very first times Americans began to raise themselves above the

Earth's surface in flying machines, there has been a synergy between the

needs and desires of civilian (commercial) and military uses of the

skies - at increasingly higher altitudes.

From the earliest balloon flights through the development of the

airplane early in the last century, through today when both civilian and

military aircraft criss-cross the skies, access to the air has been

achieved through an organic and profitable interaction between the needs

of civilians and the military.

The same has not yet happened in the area of access to space. As a

result both public and military human space transport are virtually in

the same state they were at the beginning of the space age. Although

both have access to a wide range of space-enabled telecommunications

capability, the ability of a civilian to climb aboard a “spaceliner” for

a trip to the other side of the world or a warfighter to deploy to the

front via a space plane is still in the realm of science fiction.

This odd delay in such developments (given that humans walked on the

Moon more than 30 years ago) has its roots in a historical set of

decisions that took the development of human space access down a

different path than access to the air. We all know the stories of the

cross fertilization that occurred between such projects as the C-47

(DC-3), KC135 (Boeing 707) and the origins of the Boeing 747 as part of

a competition to build a large military transport aircraft. Other,

less-visible synergies and cross fertilization occurred across the board

in a variety of aviation technology developments that include navigation

and communication, to display and safety systems. Infrastructure

development and the sharing of advances flow almost seamlessly from one

side to the other - enhancing the development and abilities of both.

Not so for space. Unlike air travel, where the overlapping needs of the

two cultures have continued to support each other from the very

beginning, human spaceflight has been in the hands of a third player -

NASA - since its inception. And NASA's needs unfortunately have little

in common with the needs of military, commercial or other civil


In fact, embryonic programs started or under way in the military were

canceled or moved into NASA, in the interests of consolidation perhaps,

and of course turf. And why not have it all under one roof? After all,

it was all about putting people in space, wasn't it?

No, it wasn't, and it isn't.

NASA has very different drivers and metrics for success than either the

military or commercial sectors. Unlike the other two groups, whose needs

focus on bottom-line elements such as economics, robustness, ease and

frequency of use, NASA's goals were and are completely different. For

example, at the time of its inception and injection into the human space

equation, the agency was driven by the imperative to get to a single

destination (the Moon) at least once, with no real plans to create the

sort of routine access or systems one might need for reliable, economic

and ongoing transportation - a mandate shared by the military and

commercial sectors.

So decades later, we find ourselves with no human military access to

space at all. We can launch a nuke and obliterate an entire nation, but

we can't lob a squad of special forces to grab a Bin Laden. We can stop

a barrage of nukes coming our way, but if a BB hits one of our

satellites we cannot send out someone to fix it. We can launch a school

bus-sized do-it-all monster satellite to a fixed orbit, but we cannot

pop up an extra set of eyes to aid a commander in the field. And yet,

these more versatile, fast-response, lower-cost capabilities are exactly

what this new war on terrorism calls for.

It is crazy how things sometimes work in the ebb and flow of history,

especially in free enterprise democracies (the part of our nation

outside the doors of NASA or the Defense Department) for just as we have

a compelling national security need to find a new way to move into and

through space, American entrepreneurs are developing the solutions.

Low-cost, reusable, reliable and safe transportation for smaller

payloads and people is exactly what our commercial NewSpace industry is

doing - for its own reasons. The development of commercial sub-orbital

and orbital space vehicles already is happening - funded by investors

and entrepreneurs, and with a little financial, technical and

legislative help - could revolutionize not just civilian space

transportation, but the military as well.

This new industry is alive, but barely so. Although some elements in

NASA are trying to work with and support them with a few crumbs from the

budgetary banquet table, much more help is needed at this critical

moment to help this industry survive. And perhaps NASA just isn't the

right partner.

NASA is once again focused on a single point goal (ok, two points if

you include a landing on the Moon and Mars) and is dead set on

developing a massive, non-robust, non-economic, non-responsive system in

house to reach that goal - with no thought as to how to sustain its

achievement. In other words, they have no interest in systems that lead

to an established economy in space (private-sector thinking) or to

holding and expanding a beach-head or battle front (military-sector


If they get back to the Moon and toss a handful of Armstrongs on Mars,

they are done. And although every once in a while some effort is made to

merge the two, until and unless NASA decides it is going to open the

frontier, rather than visit it, the military and commercial sectors are

on their own.

So what do we do about it? Last fall, at a special meeting prior to the

Space Frontier Foundation conference in Los Angeles, a group of chief

executives and other leaders of the NewSpace industry gathered to

discuss how to re-create that relationship, except this time between our

defenders and these innovative new entrants to the space arena.

The NewSpace industry believes the Pentagon's new requirement for

Operationally Responsive Space and commercial human spaceflight in

particular are completely synergistic. The Pentagon wants creative,

small, cheap and tough, which may as well be the definition of NewSpace.

From engineering to infrastructure, from creativity to capital, there is

great convergence between the two sectors. Once again, as in the halcyon

days of early aviation, the chance to catalyze and fertilize exists. The

businessperson and the brigadier are on the same page on this one, so

let's make it happen.

As remarkable as it seems, to that end, the NewSpace representatives

were able to join their many and different voices into one, and produce

a set of concepts they believe will enable this new partnership. The

firms present represented a wide range of approaches and business plans,

but they put aside their differences to seek common ground. To help this

process begin, and begin the dialogue, they are calling for the actions

below to be taken by the White House:

  • Direct the Defense Department (and other U.S. government agencies) to develop outreach and feedback mechanisms to gain greater insight into the NewSpace industry’s capabilities and plans.
  • Confer with the NewSpace industry to ensure that government technology research plans will intersect with their probable future needs.
  • Spend some minimum fraction of Defense Department (and other U.S. government agencies) space transportation research funding on technologies that will have broad common utility for the NewSpace industry and the Pentagon.
  • Direct the Defense Department (and other U.S. government agencies) to develop and utilize purchasing and acquisition methods such as prizes, Other Transactions Authority agreements, and pay for delivery contracts to stimulate the growth and innovation of the NewSpace industry.
  • Publish an annual report to Congress on the progress of U.S. government efforts to gain leverage from the private technology and capability investments of the NewSpace industry.
  • Support a regulatory regime that encourages rather than inhibits the development of commercial human spaceflight - for example streamlining or removing such barriers to success as the International Traffic in Arms regulations.
  • Create a National Space Access Advisory Committee, to be composed of leaders of the NewSpace industry and the relevant decision makers in government, to guide and accelerate these and subsequent federal efforts.

These ideas speak for themselves, given the historical context I

outlined before. (And perhaps some at NASA might want to print out a

copy or two and post it on the wall.) If we can re-create this

partnership, America will not only be safer and stronger, we will be

taking a path that leads to a future worth fighting for - for ourselves

and the rest of the world.

Rick N.Tumlinson is a policy expert and editor of the recently published Return to the Moon.

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