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.


One Response to “Commercial space prospects – Hot? Or Not?”

  1. Space-for-All at HobbySpace » Space policy roundup – Nov.28.13 Says:

    […] Commercial space prospects – Hot? Or Not? – doctorlinda […]

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