Ted Cruz Asks Space Capitalists How to Make Orbit Great Again
Space could be capitalism’s next frontier, but not without the government’s help.
Luckily, the government is all ears. Last Thursday, a bunch of space capitalists sat across from a bunch of senators to talk policy. The panel included everyone from SpaceX‘s senior VP to the CEO of a small launch startup. Topics ranged from removing orbital debris to enabling deep space commerce; from eliminating bureaucratic speed bumps to dealing with space pirates. Yes, the discussion ranged wide, and at times weird—again, space pirates?—but overall one point was clear: The riches of space are America’s to lose.
Congressional hearings like these often reveal their organizers’ political motives. Texas Republican Ted Cruz, chair of the Senate Science, Space, and Commerce committee, convened this meeting, and it’s not unreasonable to think the themes these speakers touched upon were his, and its attendees chosen by his staff to give voice to his vision. “Ted Cruz is a very smart man, no matter what anyone thinks of his politics, and he’s been on track lately to do commerce the old fashioned way,” says Keith Cowing, editor of NASAWatch. If this meeting is really an indication of what’s to come, the future of space will continue in that good ol’ fashioned American spirit of free markets with a heaping side of government help.
The US has always looked at space through the Lewis and Clark paradigm—exploration leads to commerce. It’s even written into NASA’s 1958 founding charter. (The same document requires NASA to study the Earth’s atmosphere.) And space commerce has exploded. Globally, it’s a $330 billion a year industry, with commercial activities making up more than three quarters of that total value. Every starry-eyed space entrepreneur owes some measure of their success to technology, property, or expertise that NASA has given away at cut-rate prices, or occasionally, for free. The rest of the federal government is generally just as accommodating. Hence, this meeting.
But still, the government is by definition a bureaucracy, and its concerns for things like safety, security, and process can slow down the flow of space bucks. Hence, this meeting.
Rocket launches get more publicity than satellite operations, but the latter are a bigger business, representing more than 60 percent of the space economy. And like in any big business, pollution can become a problem. Moriba Jah, an astrodynamicist and professor at the University of Texas, Austin, compares Earth’s orbital environment to the Wild West: NASA’s work providing infrastructure and expertise to commercial interests was like the Transcontinental Railroad, which brought Eastern American businesses to everything left of the Mississippi. “The environmental impact of runaway mining and prospecting was harsh and detrimental in many instances,” says Jah. Except instead of mercury poisoning, the proliferation of commercial space operations has left Earth’s orbital environment littered with junk.
And as anyone who saw Gravity knows, even small pieces of space junk can cause catastrophic damage to expensive operational pieces of equipment like the International Space Station. Jah points out how woefully behind the US’s space junk tracking (let alone clean-up) efforts are. The Air Force’s US Strategic Command tracks over 24,000 objects in its space situational awareness database. Jah says the actual number of potential flight hazards—any orbital object bigger than a centimeter in diameter—is at least 100 times that.
There’s another good reason for keeping an eye on all the objects in the sky. “Space piracy has likely already happened, is happening, and will happen so long as we lack the ability to comprehensively monitor all space activities,” he says. “This unfortunate human behavior has happened in all other domains, and to expect the space domain to be an exception is naïve at best.” Yargh! Jah recommends that the Air Force let civilian operators take over monitoring orbital space, modeled after civil air traffic management.
Rockets may be economic small potatoes, but their obvious importance—can’t get to space without ’em—explains the presence of two rocket company reps at Thursday’s meeting. SpaceX wants to go to Mars, and its VP of global business Tim Hughes made clear how the US government could support that goal: by contracting with commercial launch companies for its deep space missions.
Beyond subsidizing Elon Musk’s plans to colonize the Red Planet, deep space launches are necessary to grow the space economy overall. Remember, satellites are the space economy’s biggest payout. But that can’t last forever. Earth can only hold so many humans, which means there’s a finite limit to this species’ telecommunications needs. If space capitalism is going to grow, it needs to open up new markets.
And yet, Earth’s crowded orbital space still has some niches, particularly for smaller payloads. Relativity Space, Inc. is a space launch startup that wants to cater to small satellite operators, those that don’t require massive rockets to reach low Earth orbit. In explaining his company’s needs, Relativity’s CEO Tim Ellis extended Jah’s historical manifest destiny analogy by a hundred years. “We firmly believe that opening and strategically building up specialized government infrastructure could act as an “accelerator” of space startups, in much the same way that President Eisenhower created the highway system and catalyzed the automobile industry,” he says. This would free up small companies like his from using their limited startup capital on infrastructure like launchpads and engine stands, and instead letting them build the rockets they need to survive until their next round of funding.
The US government provides a third, more specialized space market: The International Space Station. And while the ISS needs no introduction, it might soon require a eulogy. At present, Congress plans to stop funding the $3 to $4 billion a year orbital behemoth in 2024. This is mostly so NASA can focus on other big money projects, like sending humans to Mars. Many smart, hopeful experts in and outside of the government have suggested extending this lifespan by courting commercial activity.
Notably, Casis, the nonprofit that is ostensibly in charge of commercializing the ISS, wasn’t at the meeting. Jeffrey Manber, CEO of NanoRacks—the only really successful business operating on board the ISS—was. His request was simple: Be clear about when the ISS will close down. “No matter what the end of operations date, the private sector needs to hear what that date is, rather than keeping it ambiguous,” he says. For him, this isn’t about getting an extended government handout—Manber is outspoken about the fact that he doesn’t ask for NASA funding. He says that time will be necessary for him and other space capitalists to plan ahead so foreign governments don’t encroach on all the robust services the ISS offered.
In a nutshell, that is space capitalism, the American way.
via Wired Top Stories https://www.wired.com
July 17, 2017 at 07:06AM