Commercial Spaceflight Goes to Capital Hill
Thursday, July 12th, 2012
by AJ Plunkett
When a Senate subcommittee held its recent hearing on the future of commercial spaceflight in the United States, there were no dissenters before the panel. Even a representative of the Government Accountability Office — whose mission it is to focus a critical eye on government operations and spending — told senators that the future of the industry is now.
It was a low-key event, but the stakes were high. Federal action could have a critical impact on whether the United States remains competitive in an emerging world marketplace, according to GAO testimony. Not surprisingly, one of the biggest cheerleaders was Michael Lopez-Alegria, the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.
The federation counts more than 50 businesses and research organizations among its members, including longtime aerospace firms such as MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates, Raytheon and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, and emerging industry players like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada Corp., Planetary Resources, and the X Prize Foundation.
Lopez-Alegria acknowledged that the commercial spaceflight industry is young and uncertain — for now. When the first airplanes and computers were built, few people thought they would be useful to an everyday consumer. Likewise, the full market for commercial spaceflight has yet to be realized, according to Lopez-Alegria’s written statement submitted to the committee.
And there’s already a viable market. With the retirement of the space shuttle, NASA needs a way to get astronauts to the International Space Station — so it currently pays more than $60 million-a-seat for passage on Russia’s Soyuz capsules.
While the market for space access is certainly there, the price still has to be competitive, warned Bigelow Aerospace executive Mike Gold. Bigelow is developing what it describes as “expendable space habitats,” which it hopes to market as private sector research stations, according to Gold’s testimony.
According to both Lopez-Alegria and Gold, commercial access to space will open up an important market in microgravity research. That research, in turn, can lead to important gains in both the biotechnology and pharmaceutical sectors. Affordable spaceflight is key to all of that, Gold noted, adding that the uncertainty of some U.S. regulations threaten that affordability.
As the hearing proceeded, Gold, Lopez-Alegria, and GAO representative Gerald L. Dillingham outlined the challenges the industry still faces, such as the impact of U.S. export policies.
Regulating Sensitive Tech
The International Traffic in Arms Regulations are designed to keep U.S. companies from exporting technologies that are sensitive to national defense. But the commercial space industry is a global market, Gold and Lopez-Alegria said, and to remain competitive, ITAR should be opened to reforms so that the industry can serve those markets while the U.S. protects its security needs.
“Many of our member companies were founded by experienced business leaders who have led highly successful companies involved in many sectors of the economy,” said federation chief Lopez-Alegria in his statement. “They have invested a large amount of their capital into these businesses. If they did not believe there would be a market outside of the government, that level of investment would be unlikely.”
AJ Plunkett is a freelance writer in Virginia with experience in covering defense and aerospace industries as well as the military. AJ blogs via Contently.com.