Burgeoning commercial space industry

The Human Spaceflight Plans Committee (aka “Augustine Committee”) has finalized its report and it is no surprise that the proposals and alternatives offered there have been the subject of much review and evaluation by NASA leadership and space policy makers.


Re-reading the report last week I was struck by an early sentence in the executive summary which was repeated in the body of the report:


“. . . there is now a burgeoning commercial space industry.”


OK, I’m an Engineer, not an English major so I had to look it up:


burgeon  [bur-juh n]  


to grow or develop quickly; flourish



to begin to grow, as a bud; put forth buds, shoots, etc., as a plant (often fol. by out, forth).

ME burjon, burion; shoot, bud, deriv. of LL burra wool, fluff




Let’s see; in the USA we have, what, three or four space launch vehicle manufacturers in active production?  Is that “burgeoning?”


Sea Launch, one of the most innovative companies in both their business model and their technical approach is in bankruptcy court.  Two of the “old space” major players have formed a joint venture to pool their launch capabilities and fly maybe 5 or 6 times in a good year.  The geosynchronous satellite market has largely gone overseas to Ariane or India or China. 


As my father, the CPA, taught me:  for a business to stay in business, it must make a profit.  That is what businesses do.  If there is no return on investment, they go out of business.  It is not just the technical challenge, nor the production challenge; it is the business challenge and profitability which are inhibiting commercial space flight.  If somebody can do the job cheaper than your company, then you are in real trouble business-wise.  Ergo, commercial satellites have gone “off shore.”


There are a couple of smaller, entrepreneurial, companies which are making good progress toward medium launch vehicle operations.  We applaud them and wish them well and have in fact provided some fiscal support.


But compare where the US commercial space launch business is today with the situation a decade ago when there were at least dozen firms in the space launch business.  The proper adjective for US commercial space flight should be “moribund” rather than “burgeoning.”


Not that there aren’t a lot of folks out there who have an idea, a concept, some preliminary engineering feasibility studies and some hopeful powerpoint charts trying to attract venture capital.  There are a lot of those folks.  Many of these are pursuing the technically simpler and much cheaper sub orbital “market.”  Even that is a struggle as we can see by the serious “gap” in suborbital capability since Space Ship One flew twice in 2003 and the next flight maybe in 2010.


But any student of space flight knows that recent history is littered with the wreckage of serious commercial space launch companies  hat failed.  Just a few names to jog your memory:  Conestoga, Beal, Rotary Rocket, Kistler . . . fill in your own favorites.  Several of these had serious financial backing, great technical teams, and some even built and launched flight hardware.  All are gone. 


On my spaceflight shelf is a slim volume with the title “LEO on the Cheap” written by a guy who should have known better.  In the 1980’s there was a German organization called OTRAG that had a great plan to get to earth orbit cheaply.  Nothing ever came of it. 


All of these fledgling companies share a common belief, that getting to LEO should be easy:  just eliminate the waste, bureaucracy, and inefficiency of the government or of the “old space” (aka military-industrial-complex) guys and apply the latest management theories and – voila’ – cheap, regular, plentiful access to space will immediately follow.


Many people wishfully believe that it is that easy.  I personally wish it were that easy.  I cannot tell you how much I wish it were that easy.  But if wishes had wings then pigs could fly. 


If we are to reawaken the US commercial space launch industry and build it into a vibrant, competitive (which is to say, cheaper), reliable, regular space launch business, many things will need to be addressed.  From my knothole it would appear that the ITAR laws are one of the critical components that prevent competition.  And ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) has its merits in a dangerous world. 


By Federal statute and general interest, NASA is encouraging, promoting, and even to some extent enabling commercial space flight in the US.  Could more be done? Absolutely, and we should.  Will there be problems along the way?  No doubt.  Will astounding breakthroughs in cost reduction appear?  I doubt it. 


Commercial air travel required the revolution from propellers to jets to become really viable.  I suspect space travel will require something similar.  As long as we rely on chemical rocket propulsion it is likely we will see only incremental cost decreases. 


I wish you would find that breakthrough.  Meanwhile, the rest of us will plod through trying to incrementally improve the biplanes.  And the business ain’t “burgeoning”. 

Double Indemnity

Commercial human space flight is in its infancy.  It has been suggested that NASA could do much to encourage or enable the fledgling industry.  Supporters cite the historical analogy of US government contracts for air mail delivery in the 1920s as a model for how to kick start the industry.  A rosy hued and much abbreviated history of that era suggests that once the government started contract airmail service, modern aviation as we know it inevitably and quickly followed.


It may be worthwhile to remind ourselves of a slightly more detailed version of history.


 The US Post Office Department started scheduled airmail service while the Great War was still raging in May 1918.  Government aircraft and government pilots delivered air mail in aircraft that were built to detailed government specifications for the next eight years.  Twelve government pilots were killed in the first two years of this service.  The US Post Office added regularly scheduled transcontinental airmail service in 1920, again with government owned aircraft and government pilots.  Following the Kelly Air Mail Act of 1925, the first commercial contract air mail operations started.  These were mostly flown by small start-up airlines which were frequently under-capitalized using old government surplus aircraft.  By late 1926 all air mail delivery was turned over to these contracts and the government service was discontinued.  Fatal accidents were still common among air mail pilots.  To an even greater extent than today, the government to industry “revolving door” phenomenon was present in those days.  In 1934 the great air mail scandal erupted.  There were charges that government officials had colluded with industry officials (some of whom were former government officials) to fraudulently award air mail contracts to favored companies.  FDR cancelled all commercial air mail contracts and called on the US Army Air Service to deliver the mail.  Inexperienced military pilots and bad weather resulted in twelve pilot deaths in less than a month.  WWI aviation hero Eddie Rickenbacker called the Army Air Service program “legalized murder.”  Within a few months, Congress passed new air mail legislation and a more closely regulated commercial air mail service was restarted.  Among the features of the legislation was the provision that banned all former airline executives from further contracts.  All the old air line companies were reorganized.  Air mail contracts were much less lucrative and the nascent airline companies had to rely increasingly on passenger fares rather than air mail revenues to make their operations profitable.  Air craft accidents continued to be frequent and in 1938 the Civil Aviation Administration was formed.  The CAA started an era of tight regulations reigned over the air line industry which continued for nearly forty years. 


Is this the model that people have in mind for commercial space transportation? 


Of course, a paragraph or two doesn’t do justice to the rich and complex history of aviation in the 1920s and 1930s.   Go read the biography of  Dutch Kindelberger, for example.  Some airlines, like Pan Am, became profitable carrying passengers without the subsidy of air mail.  The transportation of equipment and goods for purely commercial reasons apart from government contracts was a significant business.  Air races stimulated technical advances.  And what happened in the USA was only part of the story as airlines sprang up crossing the globe from Europe to Africa or Australia or South America.  It wasn’t just the air mail contracts that spurred aviation in its “golden years”.


Changing focus slightly, it is often noted that the Air Force does not build its own airplane; the Army does not build its own tanks, why should NASA build its own spacecraft? 


NASA, of course, does not build human spacecraft.   Never has.  Commercial companies have built all human spacecraft and their launch vehicles.  McDonnell built Mercury and Gemini, North American Aviation and Grumman built the Apollo CSM and LM respectively.  Chrysler built the Redstone rocket and the first stage of the Saturn 1B launch vehicle, and so forth.  The renamed North American Rockwell built the Space Shuttle orbiter.  When I became NASA’s Shuttle Program Manager, I was surprised to find that the detailed design and production drawings for the Space Shuttle orbiter were the intellectual property of Rockwell International Space Division which has since become part of Boeing.  The government, while definitely involved with the design, did not do the detailed part of the design and does not own the “intellectual property” for the shuttle.  Many boxes and piece parts remain “proprietary” and not under the detailed purview of the government.  That seems commercial at some level, doesn’t it?


Thinking more about the military services, a recent speaker at NASA was from the Navy ship bureau in charge of building aircraft carriers.  The Navy doesn’t build aircraft carriers, a commercial company does that; but the Navy is intimately involved in the detailed design of every part of a new aircraft carrier.  And the Air Force is intimately involved in the design of new jet fighters like the F-22 and the F-35.  Sometimes this backfires on a company; ask about the presidential helicopter program.  There is a real lesson there.


So what is being proposed for commercial human spacecraft for government use?  A contract that merely asks a “provider” to transport our 4-ish person ISS crew from some place on the earth’s surface to the ISS for a fee?  No other questions asked?  Somehow I think that is not really what is going to happen.  Even the airlines and aircraft builders have to pass FAA certification for flight worthiness.  So if the government contracts for transportation service there is going to be some government involvement.  Oh, and don’t even ask about federal procurement regulations.  Remember the 1934 air mail scandal?  There are a slew of laws and regulations intended to prevent something like that from happening again. 


So the real question is how much or how little the government will be involved in the design/certification/operation of commercially contracted human space vehicles.  Neither the current model of intimate and controlling design authority nor a totally hands off approach is realistic.


Like almost all of life, there is going to be a compromise.  The devil is in the details.  It seems to me that we need to spend a serious amount of thought and discussion on how best to do this.  Far more than a couple of paragraphs in an essay or a report. 


Indemnification.  I have heard a lot about that word lately.  Had to look it up.  Currently the US government indemnifies the companies that build and operate our current space vehicles.  If they crash, the government, not the companies, is held liable.  That is not the way the airlines work; if an airliner crashes, the airline company or sometimes the aircraft manufacturer are held responsibility and are subject to civil legal action.  Some of the putative commercial human space flight providers want the government to indemnify them, take the responsibility if they crash.  The original airmail contracts didn’t do that in 1925. 


Seems like we have a lot to think about as we move commercial human space flight.


We might even learn from history. 


William C. “Will Bill” Hopson was an early government airmail pilot earning 5 cents a mile.  He helped pioneer the transcontinental route in 1920 flying the Omaha to Chicago leg in an open cockpit De Haviland DH-4 modified WWI bomber.  He is shown here in his government gear, ready to fly in any weather.  After the airmail was commercialized, Hopson went to work flying CAM-17 from New York to Chicago.  He died in 1928, in a crash, flying his daily run for a commercial air mail company.