How Is a Rocket Different From a Train?

Like many Americans, I rode the subway to work this morning.  Some of my colleagues took a bus.  Whether subway or bus, our conveyance was provided by the government and it abounded with all manner of commercial advertising intended to target riders, drivers, walkers, and anyone else who happened to take a gander.  Who benefits from this activity?  Everyone.  The advertisers reach an audience they desire and public transportation can improve and expand services while reducing the price of a ticket.

Why does the NASA Administrator care?  We are going to the Moon and this time we will have international and commercial partners that do not follow the norms of Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, or Shuttle.

NASA administrator and two astronauts sit down for conversation
Speaking with astronauts Chris Ferguson and Sunita “Suni” Williams for an informal Q&A session. Both Ferguson and Williams were selected to fly on the Boeing CST-100 Starliner for the Commercial Crew Program.

Right now, the United States of America is on the precipice of launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil for the first time since the retirement of the Space Shuttles in 2011.  Unlike previous human launches, NASA will not own and operate the rockets.  Instead, NASA will be a customer of a robust, domestic, commercial industry currently providing access to low Earth orbit.

The industry itself is a NASA success story and an American victory.  Because of NASA’s investments in the American launch industry, space launch now represents a net export for our country.  In fact, from 2011-2017, the United States grew its market share of commercial launch from 0% to a 54% in the global economy.  In 2018, the United States could reach 65%.

NASA’s investments now enable it to be a customer of the very launch industry it helped create.  The intent is to be one customer of many customers in a flourishing launch industry with numerous providers all competing on cost and innovation.  Savings, innovation, and redundancy result.

With many diverse launch customers, costs are spread, scale is increased, and the result is lower prices and increased access to space for NASA and others.

When multiple commercial launch providers compete to earn business, they have a strong incentive to innovate on design, engineering, manufacturing, and operations to improve services and reduce costs.  We have seen this already with the advent of reusable rockets, improved engines, and so much more.

Unlike the early Space Shuttle era, if a failure occurs in the new paradigm, we will not lose access to space.  Instead, we have the redundancy of numerous, dissimilar rockets from various service providers.

Commercial satellite operators, other government agencies, international partners, and America’s trade balance all benefit from NASA’s commitment to commercialization.  Apart from launch, NASA is also committed to commercializing human activities in low Earth orbit and we are making great strides toward that end.

These commercial successes enable NASA to do more in low Earth orbit, while freeing NASA’s budget to take humans to the Moon with a sustainable architecture.

In the new environment where NASA is just one customer, the question becomes: who else is a customer on our missions?  The prospects could be astronomical.  Some patrons could be companies uninvolved in space activities, but desiring to brand their wares on a rocket flying to space.  It might not be bad to have another customer spreading costs and reducing the price to NASA.

It could even be possible for NASA to carry such a brand itself.  Maybe on the ISS?  So long as it doesn’t compete against a commercial provider.  This was the topic of a recent article by Christian Davenport of the Washington Post.  (Chris: I would prefer a frothy soda pop.)

If NASA were to carry the brand of another, the purpose would be singular:  to prove a branding market exists, not to compete against commercial providers.  Another revenue stream for commercial providers (launch or space stations) could reduce costs to NASA and loosen new capital markets for space companies.

NASA is currently partnering with industry to demonstrate many various markets including in-space manufacturing, pharmaceutical development, the 3-D printing of human organs, and so much more.  Is it possible for NASA to demonstrate a branding opportunity?

I don’t know, but I have asked the NASA Advisory Committee to investigate the realm of the possible.  If the answer is yes, I look forward to working with my former colleagues in the Congress to make it happen.

What I do know is that tomorrow, when I get on the subway, there will be lots of commercial companies trying to get my attention and I’m ok with it, because it offsets the cost of my ticket.