My five cents worth on space news this week

While my NASA colleagues are absorbed in preparations for the Mars Science Laboratory landing, I’ve been reviewing space news of the week. I’ll comment on a few items that have caught my eye.

First, a commentary by space scientist Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for atmospheric and Space Physics LASP), published in Nature, prompts me to quibble a bit.

Baker argues that NASA should abandon multi-billion-dollar, NASA-led “flagship” space science missions and instead invest its science budget in missions led by what he claims are “more efficient and effective” academic principal investigators (PIs). He cites the upcoming Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN), funded by NASA and led by Bruce Jakoski of LASP, as an example of an academic-PI-led mission that is “on budget, on schedule and promises compelling science.”

My five cents worth? Flagship missions may be inherently more prone to cost and schedule overruns due to their size and complexity. Nonetheless, smaller-scale PI-led missions are not immune to these and other problems. (Rising academic overhead charges are worth a mention, too.) The National Academy of Sciences, in its latest decadal survey of research and mission priorities in planetary science, identified a flagship-scale Mars sample return mission as a top priority, followed by another flagship-scale mission to Europa if NASA’s budget could accommodate it. (Turns out that, at least for now, NASA can afford neither.)The survey also identified top priorities for smaller-scale Discovery- and New Frontiers-class missions ($425 million or less, and ca. $700 million, respectively).

Second, claims made about the market potential for commercial suborbital space flight at a congressional hearing yesterday have raised my skeptical hackles (again). Carissa Christensen of The Tauri Group, reporting on a suborbital reusable vehicle (SRV) market study conducted by her firm and funded by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Space Florida, told the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s space and aeronautics subcommittee at an August 1 hearing that “demand for SRV flights at current prices is genuine, sustained, and appears sufficient to support multiple providers…. The largest market by far is commercial human spaceflight for individuals…more than 80 percent of the total.”

The Tauri Group’s analysis predicts “a total of $600 million in demand over 10 years in the baseline case,” $1.6 billion in a “growth scenario,” and $300 million in a “constrained scenario.”

(Both The Tauri Group and Space Florida put out press releases about this market analysis today. You can find them here and here.)

According to the hearing charter, the FAA estimates “total investment in suborbital ventures [at] $500 million. The primary source of funding for the development of commercial SRVs has come from company founders and individual investors” – for example John Carmack, Armadillo Aerospace, $2 million; Paul Allen, SpaceShipTwo, $20 million; Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic, $100 million…. SRV companies have also received government funding from NASA, the Department of Defense, and the FAA. NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program has allocated $10 million over two years for SRV flights and DoD small business contracts have provided about $2 million in funding for technology development at three SRV companies. On July 2nd, NASA announced the selection of 14 technologies for development and suborbital flight demonstrations under the Flight Opportunities Program…. NASA is planning to spend nearly $3.5 million on the payloads….”

My thoughts? For one, if so many rich people really do have so much mad money to spend that they can afford prices ranging from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars for a brief (measured in minutes) joy ride to suborbital space and back, then it’s a testament the size of the gap between rich and poor that’s been widening ever since the Reagan years. For another, I’ll believe it when I see it (a profitable market for SRVs).

Third, while I’m not a big fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson, today I did read about some things he’s said with which I heartily agree. In a Time magazine “Techland” interview, Tyson was asked, “With the success of SpaceX, some people are questioning the need to fund a government space program. Why do we still need NASA?” Tyson replied: “The people who say that all we need is private space travel are simply delusional…. Space enthusiasts are the most susceptible demographic to delusion that I have ever seen. Private enterprise can never lead a space frontier. It’s not possible because a space frontier is expensive, it has unknown risks and it has unquantified risks.”

Right on, Neil! These are pretty much my sentiments on the subject, after 30 years of following the dialogue. Hard-core “commercial space” advocates are, and long have been, deeply enamored of the ideologies of libertarianism and economic liberalism. These belief systems have been widely critiqued, and for good reason.

That’s it for today!

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