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Opinion Editorial
Media Contact: 800-787-7223 or press@space-frontier.org
NASA and Capitalism – A Tool Discarded

By Rick Tumlinson, May 12, 2003 – In recent comments about our nation's inability to mount any significant effort to send humans to the Moon or Mars, NASA administrator O'Keefe rightly pointed out that as things stand, this nation simply can't get there from here. He then pointed out the approach the agency has taken to address this issue is to "focus all that attention, time and effort into enabling technologies that would make any of these goals feasible in the future."

Of course we need the right tools to open the frontier, and among them are some new technologies, which is where NASA likes to spend its time and our money. But the agency cannot and will not use the other major tools it has available, and the only ones that will ever allow it to help open space – the private sector and free enterprise.

A case in point is the Alternate Access to Station (AAS) program. Set up by the White House in the year 2000 it was designed to be a very small first step to allow new players and companies to supply launch services to the International Space Station (ISS). The idea was based on a concept that I and others have long espoused, that NASA needs to eventually hand off the space station and LEO flight services to the people as it moves outward to the edge of the frontier, or it will never be able to do so.

I called this idea Alpha Town, with the ISS being used as a catalyst for spurring new space transportation services, and as the core of a wide community of activities in LEO. In other words, NASA would get itself out of operations and back to exploration, by handing off activities that are inappropriate for today's manifestation of Lewis and Clark – who should be out exploring rather than going in circles. Meanwhile, growing commercial support and services would greatly lower the costs of ISS, expand its utility and allow more science and innovation to be undertaken. Along the way programs like AAS would provide a variety of low cost transportation providers to station, creating redundancy in case one system or another had problems…(such as a grounded shuttle fleet).

Congress listened to us, and in the Commercial Space Act of 1998 made its intent very clear: "The Congress further declares that the use of free market principles in operating, servicing…and adding capabilities to the Space Station, and the resulting "fullest possible engagement of commercial providers…will reduce Space Station operational costs" and "the Federal Government shall acquire space transportation services from United States commercial providers…[and] shall plan missions to accommodate the space transportation services capabilities of United States commercial providers."

To implement the will of the people, the Office of Management and Budget created AAS. This program was put into the giant Space Launch Initiative budget as a means of realizing one of SLI's stated goals: reducing risk and cost by allowing the agency to begin purchasing transportation services rather than operating as a government monopoly. It was thought by letting firms compete to fly low end payloads such as food, water and clean underwear to the station, a low risk near term "win" could be demonstrated along the path to a free market for space station resupply services. It would also mean that the Soyuz, Progress and Space Shuttles would be able to reduce their workload a bit, and create new options for supplying the station.

At first, this seemed like a good idea, even more encouraging, it seemed the agency was at last going to try something new. In fact, Congress stated in a conference report in 2000: "The conferees further note that NASA's plan for Alternative Access to the International Space Station is contained within the Space Launch Initiative budget profile and commend NASA for seeking means of reducing our dependence on the Space Shuttle and Russian Soyuz and Progress vehicles for access to ISS." (This 3 years before Columbia.)

Of course, this was not to be. Under Dan Goldin and following the lead of the Marshall Space Flight Center, who had tried for two years to derail a project it saw as not invented here, and as a threat to its hegemony over transportation development, AAS began to morph into yet another technology development effort. By 2002 the NASA meatgrinder had almost completed its digestion of the young program. Having jettisoned its free market aspects and diverted AAS into technology development, it now made a weird sort of NASA-esque sense to merge it into one of the existing tech programs. Under the so called Integrated Space Transportation plan of 2002 AAS funds were moved to support the Orbital Space Plane, an in house project designed to put a multi-stage motor on what had originally been a life boat.

AAS is nearly dead. NASA has a few more bucks for its row boat, innovation has been squashed, the private sector has again had the airlock shut in its face and all is back to normal at the agency. A few months later, as NASA and its partners discussed cutting back on ISS operations due to the high cost of operations and resupply, Columbia burns up in the sky, and the shuttle the fleet is grounded. Meanwhile the 60 billion dollar plus space station is reduced to 2 crew members who are so busy just running the thing they can do about 9 hours of low end science a week.

I would ask Mr. O'Keefe and his bosses in Congress and the White House to please pay attention here. The free enterprise commercial system that raised the money to fund your jobs actually works. Competition works. Business works. It lowers costs, increases efficiency and yes, even enhances safety, for those transportation firms who kill their customers are in the end usually killed themselves. You must begin to grasp this concept, to understand that the tool that built this great nation is one you must take in hand, along with the shiny bright new technologies your engineers and contractors keep churning out to no end.

Interestingly, even as you read these words, NASA managers across the country, and in fact in your own offices and labs are accepting commercially delivered payloads from commercially owned and operated transportation services. In fact, I am sure that some of the readers of this piece have recently shipped or received supplies and or elements of the space station using these same safe, reliable and low cost providers, with names like UPS, Fed Ex, DHL and others.

It works on Earth, it will work in space. You want to innovate? For NASA that means putting down the calculator and looking out the window at how this nation operates. You want to enable our ability to send people back to the Moon and onto Mars? Let the people help. This nation works. Our system works. Try it and see. Re-ignite AAS now.


Rick Tumlinson is the Founder of the Space Frontier Foundation.


The Space Frontier Foundation is an organization of people dedicated to opening the Space Frontier to human settlement as rapidly as possible. Our goals include protecting the Earth's fragile biosphere and creating a freer and more prosperous life for each generation by using the unlimited energy and material resources of space. Our purpose is to unleash the power of free enterprise and lead a united humanity permanently into the Solar System.

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