Commercial space prospects – Hot? Or Not?



On November 21, the Obama Administration released a new National Space Transportation Policy that “reinforces several previously stated administration priorities,” the American Association for the Advancement of Science reports in a policy alert today,  and “differs from prior versions by placing a strong emphasis on accelerating development of commercially built and operated rockets… Overall, the policy reflects Congressional desire to boost commercial-space ventures and protect funding for longer-term, deep-space exploration plans.”

On July 18, 1983, I reported in the first issue of the (now-defunct) trade publication Space Business News* that five companies had responded to NASA’s request for expressions of interest in taking over what were then NASA’s Atlas Centaur and Delta expendable launch vehicle systems – commercializing them, as it were. This action was in line with the Reagan administration’s policy of promoting the commercial development of space. The five companies were FEDEX SpaceTran, Transpace Carriers, General Dynamics, Computer Sciences Corp. (CSC), and Space Services Inc.

In the September 26, 1983, issue of SBN, I reported that Space Services “apparently is no longer interested in taking over NASA’s Delta ELV system. NASA’s solicitation for Delta commercialization proposals…appears to exclude virtually any bidder that’s not large, established aerospace company from qualifying as a commercial operator.”

According to NASA’s ELV commercialization solicitation, to qualify as an commercial ELV operator, a company would have to have “substantial recent experience in managing large integrated operational and production activities…sufficient private capital…substantial and favorable experience in the production, design, operation and maintenance of a major aerospace-related program…[and] technical competence of the highest degree related to integration and processing of space payloads and launch systems which evolved from an R&D phase to an operational mode.”

In addition, the commercial operator of the Delta system would have to pay NASA $3.1 million a year to use NASA’s Florida launch facilities, plus $8.8 million to $8.9 million apiece for three partially built Deltas, $15 million for materials for additional Delta rockets – and so on.

“Sufficient private capital,” indeed.

I don’t recall with any accuracy who won the jobs. I do recall who did not win: Space Services (actually a drop-out, for good reason), FEDEX SpaceTran and CSC. (Later, in the 1990s, came United Launch Alliance, the Lockheed Martin-Boeing joint venture formed to operate the Atlas and Delta systems.)

For further details about Transpace and other goings-on in Reagan-era “commercial space,” see Chapter 12, “Space commercialization and the new entrepreneurs,” in Michael Michaud’s 1986 book, The High Frontier: The American Pro-Space Movement 1972-1984 (Praeger, New York).

The goings-on I reported in that first issue of SBN included, among other things, the formation of a space commercialization task force by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, NASA’s formation of a space commercialization task force, NASA’s negotiation of a joint endeavor agreement with Fairchild Space to build a “Leasecraft” commercial space platform, and studies commissioned by NASA on commercial prospects for pharmaceutical manufacturing in space. Other items under discussion at the time were a privately financed fifth shuttle orbiter, commercial upper stages, and, yes, even asteroid mining.


Someday soon I hope to read through my two year’s worth of SBN issues and then see if I can figure out what became of some of the proposals and plans that I wrote about. I suspect that most did not materialize.

* From July 1983 to July 1985, I was editor, sole reporter, copy editor, marketer, and jill-of-all-trades for Space Business News.

Private property rights in space: still a bad idea




Discovery News reports today that “companies want a piece of the Moon.”

“Corporations are interested in partnering with NASA for lunar and other deep-space initiatives,” says Discovery, “but will want property rights in exchange, a NASA-commissioned report released on Tuesday shows.”

I cannot find this report online, as yet…. (NASA? Bigelow? Where is it?)

NewSpace Journal quotes the report: “America is facing a fiscal crisis of unprecedented proportions making the likelihood of increased funds for human space exploration highly unlikely,” states an advance copy of the report provided by the company. “Therefore, the only viable option for the U.S. to reach cislunar space is to leverage the efficiencies, innovations, and investments of commercial enterprises.”

National Geographic reports on the same report, “Moon mining rush ahead? A commercial space company [Bigelow] wants the U.S. government to give it lunar mining rights.” NatGeo says Bigelow Aerospace president Robert Bigelow has “called for the Federal Aviation Administration to allow property rights for lunar mining.”

The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation says its mission is “to ensure protection of the public, property, and the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States during commercial launch or reentry activities, and to encourage, facilitate, and promote U.S. commercial space transportation.” I’m not sure why the FAA would be the place to go in government for validation of private property rights in space. It seems to be that the Department of State would be a more logical place. Just a thought….

NASA and Bigelow signed a “no exchange of funds” Space Act agreement in March for “beyond Earth orbit human space exploration and development.” The purpose of the agreement is “to facilitate and explore, in a manner that meets both national and commercial goals and objectives, joint public/private arrangements that would continue to build the ability for humans to live and work in space through the expansion of exploration capabilities beyond Earth orbit.” (Thanks to SpaceRef for the link to this document.) For those who are not familiar with Space Act agreements, they do not allow NASA to make cash contributions to commercial partners but they do allow NASA to make considerable in-kind contributions to those partners on behalf of U.S. taxpayers.

“Commercial goals and objectives” boil down to a single aim: making money. The U.S. government has a legitimate role in promoting economic development. I would hope that the sorts of economic development our government promotes would benefit citizens. Mining on Earth has been hugely profitable for corporations, a critical element of economic development (building materials, energy resources, etc.) and deeply hurtful to the environment and to local communities harmed by pollution and exploitation. I can’t see how mining extraterrestrial resources would benefit citizens – except for those believers who think humankind is destined to populate outer space. As Ricky Ricardo used to say, “’Splain.”

For the record, here are Articles I and II of the 1967 United Nations Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies:

“Article I

The exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind.

Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind, on a basis of equality and in accordance with international law, and there shall be free access to all areas of celestial bodies.

There shall be freedom of scientific investigation in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, and States shall facilitate and encourage international co-operation in such investigation.

Article II

Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”

In my view, the treaty – which is the law of the land according to the U.S. Constitution – prohibits private property claims in space. Lawyers and others have been arguing about this point for decades. (Bigelow’s lawyer Mike Gold, among others, would no doubt argue strenuously that I am wrong. I would argue that my perspective is valid.) I hope that neither the U.S. government nor any other government advocates for allowing corporations to “own” parts (including resources) of the Moon or any other celestial bodies. Do we want to live in a “Snow Crash” world where megacorporations take over the roles of nation states? I surely don’t. We’re already too far gone down that road, and it’s time to stop.