Reprint of Rick Tumlinson's OpEd in Space News
By Michael Mealling
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
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
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.
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