Time for NASA to go all in on commercial space

Recent developments suggest that the business-as-usual approach to civil space policy has become increasingly untenable. At the same time, commercial partnerships continue to pay dividends, saving NASA money and expanding its reach and capabilities.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sparked a rift in the American-Russian space partnership that has endured for almost 30 years. Russia has already canceled a launch of OneWeb satellites on a Russian rocket. Russia has also stopped the delivery of RD-180 rocket engines that have been used on American rockets such as the Atlas 5. Moscow has also suspended its participation at the ESA spaceport in French Guiana.

The crown jewel of Western-Russian space cooperation, the International Space Station (ISS), is now at risk. Russian Federation space corporation Roscosmos head Dimitry Rogozin has already threatened to pull out of the ISS and, in his view, cause the orbiting space laboratory to go into an uncontrolled deorbit “into the United States or Europe.” NASA would like to preserve the partnership with Russia but as the invasion of Ukraine grinds on, it is becoming increasingly tenuous.

In the meantime, according to Ars Technica, the NASA inspector general revealed in testimony to the House Science Committee that a single Artemis launch would cost $4.1 billion. The cost includes “$2.2 billion to build a single SLS rocket, $568 million for ground systems, $1 billion for an Orion spacecraft, and $300 million to the European Space Agency for Orion’s Service Module.” The inspector general concluded that the cost was “unsustainable.” NASA cannot have a meaningful space exploration program for that cost. The conclusions buttress the view that the SLS is obsolete before it has even flown.

Clearly, the time for business as usual is long past. NASA needs to go all-in on the one area of human spaceflight that has been a complete success: commercial space.

It has becoming increasingly clear that the question is not if the Russians will leave the International Space Station but when. Even if the Ukraine invasion is stopped and Russian President Vladimir Putin deposed soon, Russia’s economy may be so damaged by the war and sanctions that it will be incapable of maintaining an independent space program for some time to come.

Ars Technica again suggests that a few people are working on a commercial solution to a NASA-Russia ISS divorce. Commercial spacecraft such as the Cygnus, a modified SpaceX Dragon, and even the long-delayed Boeing Starliner could provide re-boost capabilities. A commercial module from Axiom due in 2024 could replace some of the capabilities that would leave with the Russians. It would behoove NASA and its commercial partners to get busy planning to save the ISS until commercial replacements come online, a process that should be hastened as quickly as possible.

The problem of the Orion/SLS is a lot tougher, at least politically. The logical solution would be to scrap it, write off the tens of billions that have been spent developing the moon rocket, and figure out a way to go to the moon using SpaceX’s Starship alone. However, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, who would have to make that decision and sell it to Congress and the Biden White House, was one of the originators of the Space Launch System. He would have to admit that he made a mistake that has cost the United States close to $100 billion.

The NASA Advisory Council, which recently met to provide reports to the space agency, has a number of committees covering areas such as Human Exploration and Operations, Science, and so on. Conspicuous in its absence was the Regulatory and Policy Committee, which during the tenure of former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine provided input into issues surrounding the burgeoning private space sector. The committee provided a conduit for commercial space companies to provide NASA with advice on policy matters affecting their industry. It helped to set policy for astronauts doing commercial work on the ISS and delved into the idea of commercial sponsorships for NASA missions and spacecraft.

Nelson could reestablish the Regulatory and Policy Committee to deal with commercial space issues. He has become a born-again supporter of commercial space, something he was skeptical of when he was a United States senator. The reestablishment of a this committee devoted to commercial space would signal that the change in attitude is real. The growing importance of private space’s capacity to provide a measure of stability and vigor in NASA programs such as the ISS and Artemis through public/private partnerships, and to create an independent space economy demands nothing less.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. 

Tags Bill Nelson International Space Station Jim Bridenstine Mark R. Whittington NASA Russia Space SpaceX Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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