On Valentine’s Day, NASA released their 2012 budget. I was given the privilege of listening, at 6am via telecom, as Administrator Charlie Bolden explained the budget. I have been asked to join business meetings in Administrator Bolden’s conference room at NASA headquarters in the past. I always wonder why they want me there. Now I ask.
My colleague at headquarters loves New Mexico. He was the one who invited me. Recently, he and his wife had been here on a cattle roundup. Seriously, they know New Mexico is leading investment in commercial space development. I invited them back, thanked him for the invitation and set my alarm clock for 6am. Having just been up to Santa Fe during Las Cruces Day in Santa Fe, I figured listening to folks in Washington DC would be a relaxing way to start the week.
There is good news for the emerging commercial space industry in the 2012 NASA budget. And all of us might benefit from taking a minute to examine the implications.
The President decided in 2010 continued support for the International Space Station (ISS) is in our nation’s best interest. And ISS support will catalyze the commercial space transportation industry. Now take a deep breath, and let’s reflect on another great transportation enterprise our country built, the railroad industry.
In the 1850s when our country started to fund the transcontinental railroad, we were in a deep recession. There was no railroad industry, not in our country, not in the world. Locomotives were not safe, in fact they killed people. There were no manufacturing plants capable building engines, rail, nor was the country in the position to enable this new industry to grow. This was a time for vision and leadership and it was coming.
President Lincoln, who made his reputation as a railroad lawyer, knew linking the country together would create an immense market for jobs, and quicken the flow of fresh goods from east to west.
During the Civil War, keeping the rail lines open kept food, supplies and troops flowing to Union armies. Destroying the supply lines of the South slowly ground the war to a halt. The story is told in Stephen Ambrose’s book, Nothing Like It In The World: The Men Who Built The First Transcontinental Rail Road,
Thousands of soldiers, former engineers and constructions workers found building the railroads healed them and our country after the war. The railroad financiers who became “Captains of Industry” included men such as Leland Stanford and Brigham Young. They were among the visionaries who spent and made millions as we grew a new economy and nation. Our nation was not yet a hundred years old.
The global aerospace industry was created in America in the 1950s. By the time the military developed the ICBM program, and the civilian agency that is now NASA, the government had taken over the space industry. The aerospace industry could not have grown without the government.
Since the 1970’s, the Shuttle was the only way humans got to space from the US. Soon we will rely on the Russians to get our astronauts to the ISS. The government has left our country without a fundamental tool, a vehicle rated to carry humans to space. It is like having a railroad without locomotives to carry people.
We are rebuilding America’s human spaceflight capability. NASA is funding companies like our government funded the Union and Central Pacific, to compete to build a new launch industry. We the tax payers are no longer footing the entire bill. These companies must assume a majority of the risk, the government is only a partner. Eventually, a customer.
A recent Space News article, http://www.spacenews.com/civil/nasa-budget-draws-early-fire.html, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said, “President Obama’s decision last year to continue U.S. participation in the international space station…means the agency must invest heavily in private space companies to ensure U.S. access to the orbiting outpost following retirement of NASA’s space shuttle fleet later this year.” Commercial spaceflight is a clear winner in Obama’s 2012 NASA budget, which calls for spending $350 million more than the $500 million Congress authorized next year.
The launch industry has an incentive to move quickly to demonstrate their ability to close the transportations gap. Now there is some money and advocacy from NASA and the White House to grow this new industry. The sharing of risk in a slow economy is a risk I am willing to take as a tax payer. It beats further loss of our global competitiveness in the space industry.