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Hidden Benefits of NRO “Spy” Technology Revealed in Hill Briefing

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 12-Jul-2014 (Updated: 12-Jul-2014 08:25 PM)

While “spying” is getting bad press lately, society has derived multiple benefits from intelligence-gathering technology developed by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), said speakers at a Friday briefing on Capitol Hill.

The event, hosted by the Space Foundation, featured Dr. Robert McDonald and Dr. James Outzen from the Center for the Study of National Reconnaissance within the NRO. McDonald and Outzen described the political context leading to the establishment of the agency in 1961 and gave examples of how approaches and technology developed by the agency have seeped out of the intelligence-gathering world and into daily life.

Outzen identified three events – the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the first Soviet nuclear test in 1949, and the movement of the North Korean army into South Korea in 1950 -- as driving the shift in mindset that the United States “could not afford” to be surprised by the activities of its adversaries.  It was formalized during the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower, who said at the time “no more Pearl Harbors.”

McDonald and Outzen grouped the NRO’s contributions to society into four areas: organizational, intelligence-related, technological and data-related. The organization of the NRO itself was “unique” and “innovative,” and so were the agency’s early leaders, they explained.  Of note is Edwin Land who, in addition to creating the Polaroid instant camera, is credited with a phrase that characterized the goal of reconnaissance: “see it all, see it well, and see it now.”

Alluding to the NRO’s long history of success in answering intelligence questions – many of which could not be disclosed at the briefing – Outzen offered a couple of examples from the Cold War. The Soviets, said Outzen, were carrying out a “fabulous deception” about the extent of their offensive capabilities. Intelligence gathered by U-2 aircraft and later by the CORONA program, the first U.S. photo reconnaissance satellites, helped defray fears of “the missile gap” and inform U.S. decisions about how best to use resources during the Cold War. Outzen explained that intelligence gathered by NRO satellites has also contributed in areas as diverse as treaty verification and assessments during humanitarian and environmental crises, such as hurricanes Rita and Katrina in the United States.

By enabling the “massive collection of information,” McDonald reiterated that aerospace technologies have been “very critical” in answering intelligence questions. He explained the dramatic mechanical and technological improvements as early reconnaissance satellite programs evolved, as well as the development of the first military meteorological satellite to improve the efficiency of imaging satellites in cloudy and nighttime conditions.  He and Outzen also pointed to advancements in photography – such as the development of digital photography --  as well as systems engineering and other improvements that supported reliable launch capability, as key contributions from NRO activities. McDonald commented on the “staggering” number of NRO launches in the height of the Cold War, with one or two successful launches almost every month.

The final area of contributions the speakers commented on was data. Thinking about intelligence questions as data problems – dependent on the ability to gather the right data at a fast rate – helped drive innovations in data acquisition, integration, and processing. While much of these data remain classified, some of the long-term records are helping answer questions in other fields. In response to a question about the role of historical data in environmental research, McDonald noted that imagery collected by the CORONA satellites has been declassified and is available through the National Archives and the United States Geological Survey’s (USGS’s) Earth Resources Observation Systems (EROS) Data Center. He said that because these records allow researchers to examine conditions before NASA’s land remote sensing satellites began launching in 1972, they have been “invaluable” in environmental studies.

Lessons learned from NRO’s history and activities are captured in the National Reconnaissance Journal produced by the Center.  Three issues have been published, in 2005, 2009 and 2012.

What's Happening in Space Policy July 13-18, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Jul-2014 (Updated: 14-Jul-2014 09:49 AM)

Here is our list of space policy-related events for the upcoming week, July 13-18, 2014, and any insight we can offer about them.   The House and Senate will be in session.

During the Week

Hopefully this week will get off to a roaring start -- literally -- with the launch of Orbital Sciences Corporation's Orb-2 cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS).  Delayed a number of times, as of mid-afternoon today (Saturday) Orbital's Antares rocket is scheduled to lift off from Wallops Island, VA at 12:52 pm ET tomorrow (Sunday, July 13) sending the Cygnus spacecraft to the ISS.  If the launch does, in fact, take place tomorrow, Cygnus should arrive at the ISS on Wednesday.  Follow us on Twitter @SpcPlcyOnline for up to date information on the launch.

The Senate Appropriations Committee will markup the FY2015 defense appropriations bill this week (subcommittee markup is on Tuesday, full committee on Thursday).  One of the more interesting space policy-related issues will be whether it allocates any funding for the Air Force to begin a program to develop an alternative to Russia's RD-180 rocket engines.  The House version of the bill adds $220 million to do so even though the White House opposes the addition because it is "premature."   The Senate Armed Services Committee recommended $100 million in FY2015 in its version of the National Defense Authorization Act, but that bill has not passed the Senate yet.

U.S. dependence on Russian rocket engines is among the topics to be explored at a joint hearing on Wednesday before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee.  The hearing on Options for Assuring Domestic Access to Space features witnesses from DOD, NASA, GAO and RAND, as well as the chair (retired AF Maj. Gen. Howard Mitchell) of a recent Air Force review of alternatives to the RD-180 and the very recently retired head of NASA's Space Launch System and Orion programs (Dan Dumbacher).  It's somewhat interesting that NASA will be represented by Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot instead of Administrator Charlie Bolden, who would be closer in rank to the other agency witnesses:  Gen. William Shelton, Commander of Air Force Space Command, and Alan Estevez, Principle Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics.  Lightfoot, however, is a former director of NASA's rocket-building Marshall Space Flight Center so knows rockets inside and out.

Lots of other interesting events coming up this week.  The full list of events that we know of as of Saturday afternoon is shown below.

Sunday, July 13

Monday, July 14

Tuesday, July 15

Wednesday, July 16

Thursday, July 17

Thursday-Friday, July 17-18

SpaceX One Step Closer to AF EELV Contracts & Gets FAA OK for Texas Launch Site

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Jul-2014 (Updated: 11-Jul-2014 10:50 PM)

SpaceX announced today (July 11) that the Air Force has certified that the company's Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket has successfully completed three flights.  That is one of the steps required before SpaceX can be awarded contracts from the Air Force for launches within the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program.  Separately, on Wednesday it received approval from the FAA to conduct launches from a new launch site it plans to build in Texas.

The Air Force decision comes at a time when the SpaceX-Air Force relationship is rather strained.  The company is suing the Air Force because it awarded a block-buy contract to United Launch Alliance (ULA) last year for 36 EELV cores on a sole-source basis rather than allowing SpaceX to compete.  The Air Force and the Justice Department filed a motion last week asking the U.S. Court of Federal Claims to dismiss the suit.

Today's brief announcement by SpaceX is carefully worded to say that the Air Force certified that the Falcon 9 system successfully completed three flights, not that the company has been certified to win EELV contracts.   While asserting that it is "already qualified to compete for EELV missions," SpaceX said today it "must also be certified by the Air Force before any contract can be awarded..."   The statement concludes by saying that it expects to satisfy the remaining requirements by the end of this year.

SpaceX and the Air Force signed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) in June 2013 that details the requirements SpaceX must meet to win contracts for EELV-class launches of national security satellites.  They include an evaluation of the Falcon 9's flight history, vehicle design, reliability, process maturity, safety systems, manufacturing and operations, systems engineering, risk management, and launch facilities.  Achieving three successful flights of a common configuration of the Falcon 9 is part of that evaluation.

In February 2014, the Air Force certified the first successful flight under the CRADA.  That launch, of a Canadian science satellite and five smaller satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base, took place on September 29, 2013 and was the first of the Falcon 9 v1.1.  The other two flights, on December 3, 2013 and January 6, 2014, now also have been certified as successful.  Both of those were from Cape Canaveral and launched commercial communications satellites for SES and Thailand, respectively.

Separately, on July 9 the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved SpaceX's plans to conduct launches from a new launch site the company plans to build south of Brownsville, TX.  The Record of Decision provides FAA's final environmental determination and approval to support issuing launch licenses and/or experimental permits to launch the Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy (still in development) "and a variety of reusable suborbital vehicles" from 68.9 acres adjacent to the village of Boca Chica.  The location is in Cameron County, TX, and is approximately 3 miles north of the U.S./Mexico border.  The approval is for up to 12 "commercial launch operations" per year.

Meanwhile, SpaceX is getting ready for another attempt to launch six Orbcomm second generation (OG2) communications satellites on Monday, July 14.  That launch has been delayed several times for a variety of technical or weather-related reasons.

Orbital Postpones Orb-2 Launch To Sunday, July 13

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Jul-2014 (Updated: 11-Jul-2014 09:20 AM)

Orbital Sciences announced this morning (July 11) that it is postponing the launch of its Orb-2 mission by another day, to Sunday, July 13, at 12:52 pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).

Orbital said that severe weather at the launch site over the past several days has interfered with launch preparations for the Antares rocket, necessitating the delay.

If it launches on Sunday, the arrival of the Cygnus cargo spacecraft will be delayed until Wednesday, July 16, at 6:37 am EDT.

This is the most recent of several delays for the mission.

Posey, Kilmer Introduce ASTEROIDS Act To Grant Property Rights to Asteroid Resources - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Jul-2014 (Updated: 17-Jul-2014 10:29 AM)

Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) and Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA) introduced the American Space Technology for Exploring Resource Opportunities in Deep Space (ASTEROIDS) Act today that they say will establish and protect property rights for commercial exploration and exploitation of asteroids.

Two U.S. companies prominently promoting the potential of asteroid mining are Planetary Resources, headquartered in Redmond, WA, and Deep Space Industries in Houston, TX.

In a statement, Posey and Kilmer said that while it may be many years before asteroids actually are mined for their resources, the research is underway now and companies need greater certainty about property rights to what they are mining.  Nickel, iron, cobalt and platinum-group minerals (platinum, osmium, iridium, ruthenium, rhodium and palladium) are specifically cited as potential minerals that might be mined on asteroids.  They say that their bill will --

  • Clarify that resources mined from an asteroid are the property of the entity that obtained them
  • Ensure U.S. companies can conduct their operation without harmful interference
  • Direct the President to facilitate commercial development of asteroid resources

The major issue is whether such property rights in space are legal under international law.  The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, to which the United States and 102 other countries are signatories, prohibits claims of national sovereignty in outer space, including on the Moon and other celestial bodies, which includes asteroids.   The treaty also states that governments bear responsibility for the actions by both government and non-government entities -- such as private companies -- to ensure that they abide by the treaty's provisions. 

Scholars in space law have long argued over whether the treaty prohibits exploitation of resources entirely.  In 2004, the Board of Directors of the International Institute of Space Law (IISL) issued a statement that "prohibition of national appropriation also precludes the application of any national legislation on a territorial basis to validate a 'private claim'" and it is the "duty" of governments to "implement the terms of the treaty within their national legal systems."   The IISL statement was spurred by a company that purports to sell deeds to parcels on the Moon, but has broader applicability.  The IISL issued a further statement in 2009 to clarify its position that "any purported attempt to claim ownership of any part of outer space ... or authorization of such claims by national legislation, is forbidden.... Since there is no territorial jurisdiction in outer space or on celestial bodies, there can be no private ownership of parts thereof...."  It calls for a "specific legal regime" to be "elaborated through the United Nations, on the basis of present international space law."

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty is one of five space treaties negotiated through the United Nations.  The United States is signatory to four of the five.  A synopsis of all five treaties can be found under the "space law" tab on SpacePolicyOnline.com's home page.

A spokesman for Posey's office said that the bill repeatedly states that it should be implemented "consistent with international obligations" and does not confer ownership rights to asteroids.  It only "allows those companies that mine the asteroid to keep what they bring back."  The bill affects only U.S. companies engaged in such activities.

Tanja Masson-Zwaan, Deputy Director of the International Institute of Air & Space Law at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, agrees that existing treaties do not seem to prohibit ownership of extracted resources, but adds that exploitation of space resources must comply with general space law principles.

Michael Listner, founder and principal at Space Law and Policy Solutions in New Hampshire, says that the bill is "crafted with international law in mind," but the underlying caveat that property rights will be granted in accordance with international obligations could be a "showstopper."  He also points out that the European Space Agency (ESA) is "planning on granting resource rights as well" and asks how claims under this legislation would be reconciled with competing foreign claims.

Marco Ferrazzani, ESA Legal Counsel, said in a July 17 email to SpacePolicyOnline.com that "the European Space Agency is working towards exploration opportunities carried out in international cooperation and in full respect of international space law, with provides for the principle of non-appropriation."

UPDATE:  This article was updated on July 17, 2014 to add the quote from ESA's Marco Ferrazzani.

NASA IG: Scientists Like SOFIA, But Changes Needed to Keep it That Way

Len Ly
Posted: 10-Jul-2014 (Updated: 10-Jul-2014 01:25 PM)

Despite its problematic development history, NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) remains capable of contributing to—and is regarded favorably in large part by—the science community, according to a report from NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) released Wednesday (July 9).

“However, we understand that the SOFIA Program is competing for limited resources and policymakers will have to decide whether other NASA projects are a higher scientific and budgetary priority,” the 48-page report said.

The airborne observatory—a modified Boeing 747SP plane equipped with an approximately 9-foot diameter telescope—studies the universe in infrared wavelengths. That region of the electromagnetic spectrum is emitted by stars and planets and its trail, though invisible to human eyes, can be analyzed to help scientists better understand how the celestial bodies formed, the chemistry of interstellar material, and the environments around supermassive black holes.

NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center (AFRC, formerly Dryden) and Ames Research Center in California manage SOFIA. The observatory, based at AFRC, can be flown to almost anywhere in the world, exceed a 40,000-foot altitude and return immediately.  The capabilities complement ground- and space-based telescopes by allowing SOFIA to avoid water vapor in the lower atmosphere that can interfere with infrared observations and enable researchers to continuously test new instruments.

NASA began formulating plans for SOFIA in 1991 in partnership with its German counterpart, DLR.  In February of this year, the observatory became fully operational after more than 17 years in development—13 years longer than originally planned, with a development cost of $1.1 billion—more than 300 percent over the original estimate, the OIG report highlighted.  That figure does not include annual operating costs.

SOFIA’s “$3 billion life-cycle cost estimate, which includes a planned 20-year operational life and annual operating costs of approximately $80 million” makes it “the second most expensive operating mission for NASA’s Astrophysics Division after the Hubble Space Telescope.”

The program’s future is currently being debated between Congress and the Obama Administration.

For FY2015, President Obama is asking Congress for $12.3 million for the program.  The program typically is funded at about $80 million per year to cover NASA’s 80 percent share of the operating costs; DLR pays the other 20 percent.

The Obama Administration’s proposal is to mothball SOFIA because of its high operating costs and, in its opinion, lower priority than other NASA astrophysics programs.  The requested funding is to terminate the program in a manner that would allow the observatory to be reactivated in the future if more money is available. NASA has permission to seek other partners to defray some of the operating costs.  NASA, however, has not identified additional partners and DLR has declined to increase its commitment, the OIG report said.  It also found that NASA program officials viewed the proposed $12.3 million as “insufficient even to shut down the program.”

Congress, conversely, is pushing to keep the program alive.

A new NASA authorization bill —which provides policy guidelines and funding recommendations—has yet to pass both chambers. The version passed by the House last month (H.R. 4412) contains language forbidding the agency from using any funds in the current FY2014 to shut down SOFIA. The Senate is working on its version of the bill.

Congress is also working on the FY2015 appropriations bill for NASA, which is part of the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill.  The House version, H.R. 4660, passed in May.  The Senate Appropriations Committee has reported its version (S. 2437), which is awaiting floor action.  The House version allocates $70 million for SOFIA, compared to its FY2014 appropriated level of $86.4 million.  The Senate bill includes $87 million.  Both specifically reject the Administration’s proposal to mothball SOFIA.

The OIG investigation noted the uncertainty about the program’s future and potential ramifications, including “possible reactivation, how to retain key staff, and whether to move forward with planned research and maintenance activities.”

The report identified seven issues for NASA to consider that could affect scientific demand for SOFIA and the observatory’s long-term performance:

  • More Frequent Infusion of New Technology
  • Lack of a Formal Outreach Plan to Engage Science Community
  • Insufficient Funding to Complete Research Projects
  • Lack of Timely Data
  • No Formal Rescheduling Process for Cancelled Observations
  • Research Flight Hour Requirement May Not Provide Most Efficient Use of the Observatory
  • Periodic Assessments Needed to Assess Cost Efficiency of SOFIA’s Science

NASA should also consider alternatives to the cost-plus-fixed-fee contract with the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) in Maryland when it expires in 2016, the OIG said: “Proceeding into the operational phase with an organizational structure and contract type that does not provide management with the proper tools … may not be the most effective and cost efficient option.”

The agency has concurred with the recommendations and proposed corrective actions, the report said.

Russia's Angara Rocket Successfully Completes Suborbital Flight Test - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Jul-2014 (Updated: 10-Jul-2014 01:57 PM)

UPDATE, July 10, 2014:  A link has been added to a video released today by Russia's space agency of yesterday's successful launch.  See final paragraph.

ORIGINAL STORY, July 9, 2014:  The second try was a charm today when Russia's new Angara-1.2PP rocket lifted off on a suborbital test flight from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome.  A June 27 attempt was scrubbed because of a bad valve.  Today's attempt appears to have proceeded flawlessly.

The test was of the smallest version of Angara, a family of rockets in development since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and intended eventually to replace the Soviet-era rockets in use today.  The two-stage rocket uses environmentally-friendly fuels (liquid oxygen/kerosene and liquid oxygen/hydrogen).  The mission was designated Angara-1.2PP, with PP representing the Russian words for "first flight."

Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center manufactures Angara (and many of the venerable Soviet-era rockets, like Proton).  In a statement on its website, the center reported that all pre-launch, launch, and flight operations proceeded normally. 

The suborbital test launch carrying a dummy payload lasted 21 minutes.  As planned, the first stage and payload fairing fell into the Barents Sea, while the second stage impacted Russia's Kura test range on the Kamchatka peninsula, 5,700 kilometers from Plesetsk.

One goal of the Angara program is to conduct most launches from Plesetsk and the new Vostochny Cosmodrome under construction in Russia's Far East rather than needing to rely on launching from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in neighboring Kazakhstan.  Since Kazakhstan gained its independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has been charging Russia $115 million a year to lease facilities at Baikonur.  From a strategic perspective, Russia also wants to be able to conduct its launches from within its own borders.

Today's successful test launch is a step in that direction.  The test took place from a new launch complex at Plesetsk built specifically for Angara.  Three versions of Angara are currently under development.  Different sources report slightly different capabilities, but generally they are being designed to launch about 4 tons, 15 tons or 25 tons to low Earth orbit (LEO),  More capable ("heavier") versions are under consideration.

Russia did not provide live television coverage of the launch, as it did on June 27.   The first official confirmation was a tweet from Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin that said "Angara, there it is."   Rogozin oversees Russia's space sector.

The day after the launch, Roscosmos posted a video on YouTube.  According to the on-screen caption, launch was at 16:04 Moscow Time (12:04 GMT, 8:04 am EDT).

Orbital Sciences Delays Orb-2 Launch to July 12 Due to Weather

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Jul-2014 (Updated: 09-Jul-2014 03:53 PM)

Orbital Sciences Corporation announced today (July 9) that it is delaying the launch of its Orb-2 cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) by one day because thunderstorms in the area last night delayed the roll out of the Antares rocket to its launch pad.

Launch is now scheduled for Saturday, July 12, at 1:14 pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).  The launch is taking place from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on the coast of Virginia.

Two pre-launch briefings scheduled for tomorrow (July 10) at 4:00 pm EDT on the science payload aboard the Cygnus spacecraft and at 5:00 pm EDT on mission status, are likely to be rescheduled for Friday at the same time, but NASA has yet to confirm that.

The one-day launch delay does not affect the arrival of Cygnus at the ISS.  That is still on track for July 15 at 7:24 am EDT.

The launch has been delayed several times since its original launch date in May for a variety of reasons.

Senate Armed Services and Commerce Committees to Hold Joint Hearing on Launch Industry

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Jul-2014 (Updated: 09-Jul-2014 05:29 PM)

Two Senate committees will hold a joint hearing next week on the status of the U.S. launch industry.  "Options for Assuring Domestic Space Access" will feature witnesses from DOD, NASA, RAND and GAO, as well as the chairman of a recent Air Force study on alternatives to Russia's RD-180 rocket engine and the very recently retired head of NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion programs.

The hearing on July 16 will be co-chaired by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), chairman of the Science and Space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, and Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO), chairman of the Strategic Forces subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee.  Many U.S. space launches take place from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the adjacent NASA Kennedy Space Center on the Florida coast.  Colorado has the nation's third largest aerospace economy.  It is home not only to a large number of aerospace companies, such as United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) headquarters, but also to military users of space systems, including Air Force Space Command.

The three government witnesses on the first panel are the head of acquisition for DOD, Alan Estevez; the commander of Air Force Space Command, Gen. William Shelton; and NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot.  Lightfoot is the former director of NASA's rocket-building Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL. 

Questions that are likely to arise include the Air Force's long term procurement plan for launch vehicles and how "new entrants" like SpaceX are -- or are not -- being accommodated.   SpaceX is trying to get certified to bid for Air Force launch contracts and in the meantime filed a lawsuit against the Air Force because it gave United Launch Alliance (ULA) a sole source contract last year instead of allowing SpaceX to bid on it.  That matter is before the U.S. Court of Federal Claims so it is not clear how far Estevez or Shelton can go in discussing it, but the topic is almost certain to come up.   The Justice Department and the Air Force recently filed a motion with the Court to dismiss the lawsuit.

That contract is for ULA's Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs), Atlas 5 and Delta IV.  They are also used for NASA and NOAA satellites, so NASA's requirements are also an important part of the calculus, especially since two of the three companies it is funding in the commercial crew program (Boeing and Sierra Nevada) plan to use the Atlas V to launch their crew spacecraft (CST-100 and Dream Chaser, respectively).

NASA itself is developing a new launch vehicle, SLS, much more capable than the EELVs.  Whether DOD has any use for that type of capability may also be of interest to the committees.  SLS is being designed to take people beyond low Earth orbit (LEO).  The initial version will be able to take 70 tons to LEO, more than twice the capability of the biggest EELV (Delta IV Heavy), and a future version will be able to launch 130 tons to LEO.  At the moment NASA is the only customer, which means a very low flight rate and high costs per flight.

As critical as the SpaceX and SLS issues are, perhaps of greatest interest is U.S. reliance on Russia's RD-180 engines for the Atlas V rocket.   With the deteriorating geopolitical situation between the Untied States and Russia, the House recently voted to allocate $220 million in the FY2015 defense appropriations bill to begin a rocket engine development program to replace the RD-180.   The Senate appropriations defense subcommittee is scheduled to markup its defense bill the day before this hearing, and the full committee may be debating it at the very same time.  The White House opposed the addition of the money in the House bill as premature.

In any case, Maj. Gen. Howard Mitchell (Ret.), now with the Aerospace Corporation, is one of four witnesses on the second panel.  He just chaired a study on RD-180 alternatives for the Air Force that concluded there are few good options in the near term.   He will be joined by Dan Dumbacher who retired from NASA on July 1 and is now at Purdue University.  His last assignment at NASA was as Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development -- the person in charge of the SLS program and the Orion crew spacecraft it will launch.  Also on that panel are Cristina Chaplain of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) who has extensive experience in auditing and analyzing DOD acquisition of space systems for GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, and Yool Kim of the RAND Corporation.  Kim was one of the authors of a 2008 RAND study on improving cost estimation for space systems.

The hearing is at 9:30 am ET in room 216 of the Hart Senate Office Building.  

Launius: Public-Private Partnerships Neither Panacea Nor Pandora's Box

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Jul-2014 (Updated: 09-Jul-2014 06:35 AM)

A review of public-private partnerships throughout U.S. history published by NASA concludes that they are neither a panacea nor a Pandora's box in finding ways to accomplish goals as diverse as building railroads or creating the telephone industry. Eminent space historian Roger Launius examined six case studies as possible analogs to using such partnerships in the space program.

NASA's "commercial crew" and "commercial cargo" programs, though referred to as "commercial," actually are public-private partnerships (PPPs) where the federal government and the private sector each bring resources to the table and the government assures an initial market for the services.

In the report, Historical Analogs for the Stimulation of Space Commerce, Launius explains that PPPs are more common in U.S. history than many people realize. They "have been in use in the United States for over 200 years and thousands are operating today," he says.

 He chose six to study as analogs for developing space commerce:

  • Transcontinental Railroad
  • Commercial Air Transportation
  • Telecommunications
  • Antarctica
  • Public Works
  • National Parks

He concludes that "The reality is that public-private partnerships are neither a panacea for all ills of public policy nor a Pandora's box of troubles.  They offer appropriate responses to problems of society, especially those that have technological infrastructure, or enormous investment challenges.  There are always tradeoffs."

Looking at the applicability of PPPs to human spaceflight, in particular, Launius lists five major themes traditionally used to justify a large, publicly funded program: 

  • scientific discovery and understanding;
  • national security and military applications;
  • economic, competitiveness and commercial applications;
  • human destiny/survival of the species; and
  • national prestige/geopolitics. 

He concludes the first two are important drivers for the space program overall, but not for human spaceflight, and the last two "have receded into the background as drivers for sustained public investment in the American space program."   According to his analysis, "[c]ommercial activities are the primary arena that might prove successful for energizing human spaceflight."  He sees a robust future for entrepreneurial activities in earth orbit and urges that NASA change how it operates and "develop more equal partnerships to accomplish its space exploration mandate."

Launius is Associate Director, Collections and Curatorial Affairs, at the National Air and Space Museum.  He served as NASA's Chief Historian from 1990-2002 and is the author or editor of dozens of books on the history of space and aeronautics,  baseball, and the Mormon religion. 

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