While national space programs have performed amazing feats over the past forty years, there is a vastly larger potential that can only be opened by private enterprise. Tapping these new commercial business markets does not require huge government investments, but it does require measured incentives and focused, ongoing research into reliable, low cost and commercial launch technologies. Low cost commercial launch can be the spark that opens new markets, igniting a firestorm of activity analogous to the personal computer revolution.
To open this new business frontier, the Space Frontier Foundation advocates a new national space transportation policy with incentives for commercial development of reliable, routine, and radically cheaper access to space. Radically cheap access will open the space frontier to the free nations of the world and help preserve the peace at far lower cost. It will open the space frontier to private enterprise and eventually the general public creating new wealth and high-wage jobs. It will allow the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Science Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, other government agencies, and our universities to do far more science with fewer dollars. Opening the space frontier doesn't require a big government space program, but it does require a supportive U.S. space transportation policy.
The policy should foster increased competition and much greater participation by the workhorses of American innovation, the same innovators that opened the airways: small businesses. Moreover, it must ensure the national defense while focusing on enabling routine, reliable and cheap public and business access to space. The United States should continue flying the space shuttle to meet existing commitments making only essential upgrades for safety of flight. At the same time the government should promote commercial development of the many innovative rocket-powered spaceplanes being pursued by the commercial industry today: including ballistic and winged, vertical and horizontal landing spaceplanes. These commercial vehicles generally have smaller payloads, and use a high percentage of Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) technology. Their focus is on routine and safe "aircraft-like" operability rather than new high technology solutions.
Defense funding for military spaceplane concepts should be separately budgeted by the Department of Defense. Appropriately refocused to encourage development of today's fledgling commercial spaceplane industry versus strictly future NASA requirements, civil goals can be accomplished with NASA's existing Space Launch Initiative (SLI) funds. A recommended policy that can help open the space frontier while enhancing the national defense is:
It is the policy of the United States to foster opening of the space frontier to public commerce and to ensure the national defense. Specific goals shall include creating new wealth and new jobs by opening space to the general public, and ensuring free passage in and through space of the citizens and sovereign assets of peaceful Nations.
The U.S. government has vital roles in implementing this policy and opening the space frontier.The government can assist in three key ways: (1) its regulatory and legislative powers, (2) its civil and military R&D resources, and (3) its purchasing power to stimulate new ventures. All must be used. Key recommended implementing programs include:
1. Build and Fly Many X-vehicles Focused on Opening Space to Public Commerce and Defense VS Replacing the Shuttle
In 1986 the Packard Commission recognized the value of pre-prototype flight demonstrators: "A high priority should be given to building and testing prototype systems and subsystems before proceeding with full scale development. This early phase of R&D should use extensive informal competition and streamlined procurement processes." As presently structured, the SLI emphasizes development of a heavy lift Space Shuttle replacement vehicle using all new high technology solutions. For half the money in NASA's SLI program the U.S. could fund a dozen pre-competitive flight demonstrators; experimental flight vehicles using largely COTS technology and focused on proving the viability of routine, low cost "aircraft-like" operations in the only credible wayby routine and inexpensive flightfirst suborbital flight and eventually orbital flight. Moreover, routine and cheap flights will open the door to a free society's greatest resourcethe financial engines of free enterprise that can fund the more expensive vehicles that will one day fly routinely to orbit. Government acquisitions must be dramatically streamlined to procure such X-Vehicles, while supporting ground technology can be matured in a manner akin to how NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, helped build an aviation industry.
2. Buy Launch Services and Expand the Market
The government must foster development of a commercial market rather than investing in massive centrally planned space-launch programs. The transition will be difficult, but the payoff will be a market driven industry that is responsive to government's launch service needs while opening competitive commercial, exploration and defense opportunities. A competitive marketplace will accelerate innovation, drive down government costs, and provide the basis for new fast-growth industries. Just as the Air Mail service of the 1920s and 1930s was a key cornerstone to the development of a commercial aviation industry, streamlined launch service contracts supporting NASA and other government space transportation needs can help build a thriving commercial space transportation industry.
3. Provide Broad Based Spaceplane Investment Incentives
Another policy cornerstone is investment incentives for commercial spaceplanes. Such incentives may take the form of tax credits, tax-free bonds, zero-g--zero-tax legislation, regulatory streamlining, or potentially spaceport and spaceplane bonding authority backed by our state and federal governments. When crafting such incentives it is essential that the government avoid picking winners and losers, leaving such decisions to a free competitive marketplace. The goal here is to not create a captive industry dependent on continuing government subsidy, but rather to jump-start a whole new commercial sector that will ultimately pay back the government's investment many times over in tax revenues.
A key challenge facing the nation's space transportation programs is addressing the broad needs of the commercial sector and the specific needs of the military. NASA's civil space transportation needs should, in general, be accommodated as a subset of these commercial and DOD activities. A comprehensive national policy is an essential first step with stewardship for the supporting government programs distributed to multiple organizations in the DOD, DOT and NASA. Interagency competition should be encouraged and savvy business-experienced leaders inserted into the bureaucracies to ensure the intent, and not just the letter, of the policy is implemented.
The Space Frontier Foundation advocates restructuring the U.S. space transportation policy around these cornerstones as the necessary first step to establishing a commercial market that enables routine, safe and cheap access to space. These policy cornerstones will encourage the development of a launch service industry that reduces government expenditures and helps establish a fast-growing and competitive commercial marketplace.