More of the same (tired old rhetoric)

NASA’s April 28 media briefing at Kennedy Space Center on its second round of commercial crew development (CCDev) subsidies was revealing only in its avoidance of the word “subsidies.”

Phil McAlister, NASA’s acting director of commercial spaceflight development, resorted to well worn clichés in justifying these subsidies (my word – NASA simply calls them “Space Act agreements”), claiming the CCDev program is “strengthening our industrial base” and “reaffirming our leadership in space.” Russia’s and China’s human space flight programs are a “threat” to U.S. leadership in space, he said, and the commercial crew program will “eliminate the gap.”

McAlister asserted that the CCDev program “follows a pattern” established by federal subsidy (my word, not his) of rail and air transportation. This analogy, also well worn, does not hold up. As it has been for 50 years, space transportation is up against a physical wall: the energy cost of escaping Earth’s gravity. Until and unless someone comes up with an as-yet-unimagined source of energy for propelling payload into space, the wall is in the way. Big time.

Ed Mango, program manager for NASA’s commercial crew program at Kennedy Space Center, sang the same tune, emphasizing that the Space Shuttle is an emblem of “U.S. leadership in space…what leadership is for America.”

(Mango showed a map depicting how the money NASA is spending on CCDev is distributed nationwide among contractors, subcontractors, and suppliers. Attention Congress! It reminded me of a famous Rockwell map of around 1981 depicting how its Space Shuttle funding was being distributed nationwide – Rockwell was then prime contractor for the Shuttle.)

Substitute any big-ticket program NASA is promoting at the moment for “commercial crew development,” and the justification is pretty much the same. Taxpayers deserve to know a bit more about how they benefit from these “investments.”

Blue Origin program manager Rob Meyerson noted that his company is using facilities and personnel at NASA’s Ames and Stennis field centers in its CCDev work, saying “we’re happy to have [them] on our team.” (I wonder, who is on whose team?) Sierra Nevada’s Mark Sirangelo said, “We owe a lot” to the Shuttle – that is, to Shuttle technology development. SpaceX program manager and former NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman said his company has built its Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft “in partnership with NASA.” Boeing program manager John Elbon said his company is leveraging Apollo, Shuttle, and space station knowledge to build its commercial crew craft.

So, okay, to be fair, these guys were fairly up front about their debt to the government (though studiously avoiding any mention of “subsidy”). Some of their bosses, however, prefer to frame their efforts as, well, heroic…. And the rest of the world – in particular the mass media, and especially the aerospace and business press – continues to frame these companies and their leaders as pioneers doing something new. Tapping government for any and every possible means of support, whether subsidies, tax breaks, or promotion, is nothing new.

During Q&A, a reporter asked these officials how much more money their companies will need before they’ll be ready to launch people into low Earth orbit. The response? “Ummmmm….” For the record, nobody said, “None.”

As Boeing official Andrew Aldrin said at a Marshall Institute forum last year, no company is going to put any of its own money at risk to develop commercial space transportation. While U.S. companies have squawked long and loudly about unfair government subsidy of the European Ariane launch system, they all have benefited from government subsidy of launch technology development – as some of NASA’s CCDev partners have (vaguely) acknowledged. For example, while launch companies may pay to use government launch facilities, they certainly aren’t paying full price (or, more precisely, what most of us would call full price).

I am not arguing against government subsidy of advanced technology development. I am arguing that both government subsidizers and the companies receiving the subsidies should be more honest and open about what they’re up to….

My prediction? Any company that might succeed in supplying NASA (or anybody else) with crew transport to low Earth orbit will charge as much as the market will bear for the service. That’s “bidniss.”


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