As Shuttle Ends, Space Program Needs a New Beginning

' ... An investment with a history of paying back in significant financial and social benefits'
By: Jeff Kottkamp | Posted: July 20, 2011 7:39 AM

Jeff Kottkamp

The end is near. The last space shuttle mission soon will be completed. Unfortunately, because of a lack of vision and leadership in Washington, we may be seeing the beginning of the end for our national space program as well.

Last year President Barack Obama came to Florida and announced what he called a “bold new vision” for our nation’s space program. While his proposal (which was revised after his initial proposal received significant push-back) saved some of the jobs that will otherwise be lost when the space shuttle is retired, calling his plans for our space program “bold,” or using the word “vision” to describe the proposal, is a stretch.

An example of a bold and visionary approach to space took place when John F. Kennedy issued the challenge to safely fly a man to the Moon and back. At the time, we did not have the technology to achieve such a lofty goal -- impossible in the minds of some. However, what President Kennedy understood, and President Obama apparently fails to grasp, is that the mission drives technology development in ways that otherwise would never take place.

There are literally thousands of products we now use every day that were developed as part of the space program. Examples include smoke detectors, hand-held vacuum cleaners, microwaves and water filters. Concentrated baby foods, as well as the freeze-dried instant mixes we feed our children were first consumed by astronauts in space. 

Studies have shown that for every dollar spent on space development, $7 has been returned to our economy in the form of a new product or service. Perhaps the biggest impact has been in the area of computers. Fifty years ago a single computer filled an entire room. Space travel required much smaller computers -- which led to the development of the microprocessor or computer chip. These chips are now found in personal computers, cars, ovens, clocks, washing machines, DVD players and many other products. The cost of developing the microprocessor has been far outpaced by the return on that investment.

The exploration of space is not just about the national pride of being first “to boldly go where no man has gone before” (to quote Capt. James T. Kirk).  It is about innovation, product development, job creation, and by the way it can also lead to improving the quality of life for all mankind. To be the world leader in space exploration is to be the leader of the innovation economy. Moreover, control of space is directly linked to national defense in ways we never could have imagined just 25 years ago.

In a time when the federal budget is bursting at the seams, and we suffer from an unsustainable and growing national debt, some will argue that we simply can’t afford to explore space. But NASA’s budget is one-half of 1 percent of the total budget in Washington, the proverbial drop in the bucket. The Apollo program that took us to the Moon had a total price tag of just over $25 billion. The shuttle program cost about $200 billion. That is nearly 50 years of space exploration with countless economic and social benefits resulting from those efforts. The issue is not money -- it’s about priorities.

The true cost of President’s Obama’s stimulus package is estimated at over $3 trillion -- as opposed to the “official” total of $814 billion. The stimulus money has resulted in no significant benefit to the economy -- in fact, economic growth and job creation are flat. The fact is, spending money on space exploration is an investment that has a history of paying back significant financial and social benefits.

We can, and must, reduce the federal budget, significantly reduce the national debt and at the same time maintain a thriving and robust space exploration program. In fact, a failure to get our financial house in order will eliminate our ability to fund a space program, or anything else for that matter. We can’t spend our way out of this financial mess. We have to grow the economy and create jobs. Maintaining the world’s premier space exploration program would go a long way in achieving that goal.

Is there a place for the private sector in space exploration? Yes. In fact, Space X has already landed a $1 billion contract from NASA to deliver payloads to the International Space Station. They have had great success in developing their Falcon 9 rocket. But the private sector has its limitations: Try going to a corporate board of directors and telling them that the payoff for an investment in space exploration will come in 25 years. That doesn’t work in the world of profit and loss statements. 

The next space exploration mission should be a national effort, one directed by NASA on behalf of the American people. NASA has the experience and expertise. If we fail to maintain our position as the leader in space, there are plenty of countries waiting to replace us, including China and Russia. We cannot let that happen.      

Today we need a renewed commitment to our nation’s space exploration program. It is time to give America another challenge, another purpose, a mission with a defined timeline: to Mars by 2020. Americans rise to the occasion every time we are challenged. Now is the time for us to take on the next great challenge in space exploration, not to retreat from our history, our collective accomplishments and our position as the world leader in space. An investment in the space program is an investment in the future of our nation.

This is a guest column by Jeff Kottkamp. He was Florida’s 17th lieutenant governor. He served as chairman of Space Florida from 2007-2011 and led the efforts to grow and expand the aerospace industry in Florida.

Comments (9)

9:06PM DEC 29TH 2011
Imrpessive brain power at work! Great answer!
9:24AM DEC 27TH 2011
Never would have thunk I would find this so indipsensable.
8:06AM JUL 22ND 2011
In my opinion China will undercut any real American privatization efforts by providing lower cost access to space.

For decades Bill Nelson has always supported the space program on the space coast and then gone to Washington and voted to cut the budget and no one has called him on it.

Recently Nelson advocated renting out KSC to private companies. He has never replied to the two letters I sent to him asking him what safeguards his rental proposal has to keep Chinese army government companies from renting KSC and spying on the AF DoD Cape Canaveral Range.
Terence Clark
12:27PM JUL 20TH 2011
In a followup to my earlier comment, I find it a piece of poetic justice that several of the current commercial space efforts are built on the framework of prior NASA projects that were subsequently cancelled. DreamChaser and Bigelow are both spinoffs from prior NASA/DoD projects that had no insurmountable engineering issues. Manned Atlas 5's, and even Delta IV's have been studied for years. CST-100 was Boeing's counter-offer to Lockheed's Orion that was rejected, mothballed, and revived with a shiny coat of commercial paint. Even SpaceX, who otherwise do everything themselves, borrowed the successful recipe for PICA and drafted it's own version, PICA-X.
gaetano marano
2:47PM JUL 20TH 2011
the ENTIRE (40-tons-total) payload mass that "should" be carried to the ISS between 2014-16 and 2020 (+delays) by ALL the 20 "commercial space" CRS missions (12 with a cargo-Dragon and 8 with a Cygnus) awarded by NASA to SpaceX and Orbital Sciences (for a total price of $3.5 billion + over $1 billion for the COTS program) can be carried by (just) TWO further Shuttle flights (at 20 tons of payload per flight) and NOW, in late 2011 (then, NOT in 2015, or 2018, or 2020) for a total cost of about $1.5 billion, that is LESS THAN HALF the CRS program!!!
Cygnus: timeline: 2014-16 to 2020 -- number of flights: 8 -- max cargo per flight: 2.5 tons -- max total payload of all CRS missions: 20 tons
Dragon: timeline: 2014-16 to 2020 -- number of flights: 12 -- max cargo per flight: 3 tons -- max total payloads of all CRS missions: 36 tons
costs of the COTS + CRS program: $1 billion for COTS + $3.5 billion for CRS including all 20 missions for a total of 56 tons max carried to the ISS = $80 million per ton of payload
Shuttle: timeline 2011-12 -- number of flights: 2 -- max cargo per flight: 24 tons (+ 7 astronauts!!!) -- max total payload: 48 tons (or just 40 tons to the ISS)
total costs of two further Shuttle missions: $1.6 billion for a total of (only) 40 tons of payload (+ 14 astronauts!!!) = $40 million per ton of payload (that's HALF the price of the "cheap" commercial space...)
SLS: timeline 2017-up -- max cargo per flight: 130 tons -- costs of the program: $10 billion -- price per launch: over $1 billion -- number of cargo flights in 2017-2020: four???
price per ton of payload of four SLS launches: $10 Bn + $4 Bn = $14 Bn / 520 tons = $27 million per ton of payload (that's 1/3rd the price of the "cheap" commercial space...)
Terence Clark
5:40PM JUL 20TH 2011
Hey gaetano, good to see you outside of the usual places.

First off, check your numbers. It aoppears you did 1 ton = 2000kg instead of 1 ton = 2000 lbs. Dragon does, indeed, lift 6000 kg to orbit, but that's not 3 tons, that 6.6 tons. Cygnus is set to lift up to 3 tons, not 2.5 as you state (indeed the contract mentions a figure of approximately 20,000kg or 22 short tons of cargo, an impossible number at 2.5 tons/flight).

Additionally, it's not an apples to oranges comparison to pit STS' per flight cost to commercial's per flight costs + development costs. So COTS should be out of the equation, leaving 3.5 billion for the total cost. Furthermore, we don't spend 1.6 billion per year on shuttle, we spend about 3 billion (this is regardless of flight rate. In the 90's we spent 2.4 billion/year for approx 8 flights. In 2009 we spent about 3 billion for 5 flights. 2007 spent about 3 billion for 3 flights). That number went down this year, but that's because we shut down all the support facilities necessary to keep shuttle running. Those support costs are part of Cygnus/Dragon's pricetags already. So that, also, should be factored in. So that's 101.2 tons (22 cygnus, 79.2 Dragon) @ 3.5 billion vs. 48 tons at 3.0 billion. That's 34.6 million/ton for commercial and 62.5 million per ton from shuttle.

Don't agree with my assumptions? Let's assume we add the COTS money back in. That's still only 44.5 billion per ton to shuttle's 62.5 million. Or how about we cut development costs out of both and assume shuttle would only cost 1.5 billion over that period. That would still only 34.6 million/ton commercial to 31.25 million per ton shuttle. That's savings, but barely. And unlike shuttle commercial would be available for future launches, as necessary. In fact, NASA already optioned for more resupply missions on SpaceX' contract to the tune of up to $1.5 billion.

As to the SLS, any numbers from flight rate to development costs to cost/launch are purely speculative. As we don't even have a rocket picked yet, nor an ISS resupply flight schedule (nor a plan to resupply ISS with SLS at all, for that matter) your calculations on that program are pure smoke and mirrors. They also generously assume that SLS won't go over budget (which is almost guaranteed to be incorrect given Constellation and Shuttle's cost overruns).

Additionally, doing a simple ton for ton comparison assumes that's the nature of resupply. Many of the supplies needed on the space station are either consumables or as-needed items, requiring more frequent flights than 2 flights in the very first year of a 5-9 year period. You also ignore the costs of restartig shuttle manufacturing and support systems and rehiring workforce, which would not be instantaneous or free.
11:58AM JUL 20TH 2011
How is it that NASA spent $500 million of the tax payers money to build just the launch tower for the now canceled Ares I rocket. While a commercial company SpaceX developed and tested an entire launch system Falcon 9 and a space capsule Dragon for about $400 million?

It is simple if an employee at SpaceX suggested building a $500 million dollar launch tower they would be fired. What congress person would ever reject a $500 million project for his state? If you ask a contractor to build a $500 million dollar anything they will build it, especially if they can't lose any money with a fat cost+ contract.

This is exactly why DC has spending problems. The only incentives for congress people is to get more money for their states or to spend more tax money. Again who can win an election if they campaign I stopped fighting for you and I lost billions of federal aid for our state! Vote for me!

Thus, NASA is only a jobs program to congress. You can't expect anyone to act in a manner that is completely against their own self interests. More jobs for their state means they get reelected. Lose jobs means you don't get reelected. Thus spend more tax payer money and you get reelected! Both sides play this way because it is the way the rules of the game have been setup.

This isn't rocket science people...
Terence Clark
11:12AM JUL 20TH 2011
On the subject of bold new initiatives, Kennedy was an anomaly. He had a international political climate conducive to grand national pride achievements. He also had a Soviet satellite over his head and Yuri Gagarin statues being minted. what he didn't have was a budget crisis.

Not since Nixon started drawing back Apollo's funding has the US government, president, congress and all, committed the funds or political capital to our space program necessary to do what you suggest. And no environment similar to Kennedy exists today to ignite that. China is perhaps belligerent, but not agressive, and their space program is moving at an unthreatening snail's pace. Russia has been playing 'reliable family car' in space for decades, with little indication of changing. And terrorists won't be making moon shots anytime soon. As to the budget, right now all congress can see is the balance sheet. No one is considering how to invest in the future because the bill collectors are already calling.

We space fans have been hoping for congress and the president to pull a Kennedy since, well, Kennedy. And each time some grand program is announced, we are disappointed. The space shuttle promised frequent, cheap flights to orbit. It delivered one of the most expensive kg to orbit costs in the market and less than a half dozen flights a year, and that was in the years it actually did fly. The EELV program fizzled. The shelves of space collectors everywhere are littered with models of several iterations of the 'greatest spacecraft that never flew.' Many were cancelled within months of seeing flight. The VSE was announced to great fanfare only to have the very person who announced it so profoundly undercut its budget 4 years in a row that even when congress upped that budget in each year, it still fell short of even the most optimistic cost estimates.

At this point, scolding our president for not pursuing a grand mission is shouting in the wind. Even if he did, no one in congress would back it. And even if they did back it, they wouldn't fund it. That has been the reality of government space for over half a century and it's a fool's errand to advocate a change.

What will change it is if companies like SpaceX keep pushing for bigger an better, damn the torpedoes. When SpaceX, Blue Origin, Boeing, Sierra Nevada, together or alone, say "look, we've got rockets and spacecraft with the keys in the ignition, you gonna go for a ride?", only then will we see the possibility of the government following suit.
Terence Clark
10:49AM JUL 20TH 2011
"But the private sector has its limitations: Try going to a corporate board of directors and telling them that the payoff for an investment in space exploration will come in 25 years. That doesn’t work in the world of profit and loss statements. "

SpaceX is not currently publicly traded and Musk has stated before that in the nearly inevitable event it does put out an IPO, he will retain a controlling share. As to investment capital, his primary investments come from the Founder's Fund, which is composed in part by himself, but otherwise by a group of investors that broadly support his goals of pushing for people on Mars.

As evidence I offer up Falcon Heavy, which is a product with no yet proven market, though I suspect there will be one. Boeing and Lockheed have the capital and expertise necessary to field their own super-heavy candidate and have for decades. But they are, indeed, beholden to their boards and as such will only announce such a rocket when NASA puts a contract on the table to design one.

Dragon as well was a project with no proven customer. Indeed Kistler Aerospace infamously failed in its attempts to obtain outside funding specifically because NASA failed to commit to a contract for services once the project was complete. Musk had the independant wealth to weather that storm, and now he has a business operating in the black to back up his plans.

So SpaceX's only real limitation comes not in the opinions of a board, but in the raw economic possiblity of their plans. And in that, Musk has proven a capable master of finances and PR. Whether by his own personal talent or those around him, he has dodged the flash in the pan burnout phase of the space startup world, while pushing ahead with a manned program faster than any of the current government projects. Indeed in capability alone, he will have outpaced the Chinese in short order and will have beat three national vehicles (India, Russia (Angara), and the US) to the launch pad.

Look, I'm not saying it's a done deal. The prospect of a private company launching to Mars is absurdly improbable, even now. But so also was the idea of a private manned space capsule. So also was the idea of a commercially viable super heavy launcher. So also was the idea of a company building a successful rocket family from the ground up with no legacy parts or significant outsourcing (a feat not accomplished since the first ICBMs rolled off the assembly lines in the 50's and 60's). We've moved from snowball's chance in Mojave to the chances of winning a 10,000 jackpot at a slot machine. And with each successive step, that possibility gets more and more real.

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