Regulation on the Final Frontier: Market Innovations Would Greatly Benefit America's Space Policy. (Space)

By Macauley, Molly K. | Regulation, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Regulation on the Final Frontier: Market Innovations Would Greatly Benefit America's Space Policy. (Space)


Macauley, Molly K., Regulation


THE TRAGIC LOSS OF THE SPACE SHUTTLE Columbia last February reintroduced into America's consciousness the question of why we send humans into space. But until the accident, most people did not know that Columbia was in orbit and even fewer people cared why. Could it be that manned space flight lacks much public relevance? Instead, it is unmanned space activities like television broadcasting, paging services, cell phones, navigation, and weather monitoring that affect our day-in, day-outlives. Their estimated market size has grown to over $270 billion annually -- an expenditure far greater than the $11 billion budget for human flight.

Government regulation of commercial space has kept pace with that growth. As in markets for other goods and services, regulation of space exploitation is appropriate in some cases but much less so in others. As policy analysts both inside and outside NASA contemplate the direction of the shuffle program in the wake of the Columbia tragedy, they would do well to consider the broad field of space policy instead of focusing exclusively on shuttle operations and safety.

SPACE TRANSPORTATION

The nation's space transportation infrastructure consists of both government-owned resources (the space shuffles) and privately owned resources (conventional unmanned rockets known as "expendable launch vehicles" or ELVs). Despite the attention accorded Columbia, the shuttle is not the usual mode of space access. It flies only three or four times each year because of regulatory legislation enacted after the 1986 loss of its sister ship Challenger.

The legislation permits use of shuttles only for activities that require humans. In particular, the law prohibits shuffle launches of most satellites, including the plethora of spacecraft providing everyday services such as telecommunications, earth observations and mapping, weather forecasting, and navigation, as well as almost every satellite NASA operates for scientific studies of comets, planets, and other space phenomena. All of those spacecraft fly on ELVs.

The shuttles When the shuttle does fly, it is operated by United Space Alliance (USA), a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corporation and the Boeing Company. NASA contracted with USA in 1996 for private sector management and operations -- the contract was a congressionally mandated first step toward an attempt to increase industry involvement in the shuffle program.

The contract shifted many shuttle-related civil servant positions to USA to streamline shuttle operations and replace an aging civil service workforce that was rapidly nearing retirement. Because the government still owns the shuttle system, however, NASA is in charge of deciding when to upgrade the shuttles and how much maintenance they require. That places USA in the awkward position of being responsible for managing an asset but not having authority for its quality. Critics of USA have asked whether Columbia's fate was related to lax safety procedures, but other observers point out that USA adheres to NASA-specified safety protocols.

The Commercial Space Act of 1998 requires further study of full-fledged privatization of the shuttle program -- that is, the possibility of private ownership, not just operation. The Act intends "to restore NASA's research focus and to promote the fullest possible commercial use of space." An in-depth 2001 NASA internal assessment of privatizing additional shuttle management duties affirmed advantages of industry involvement. But one of the most respected trade journals, Aviation Week and Space Technology, expressed some incredulity about such plans in its December 12, 1998 issue. The magazine noted that "nobody has ever privatized a winged hypersonic space transport with $3.2 billion in annual operating costs, $10 billion in reusable flight hardware, and $6 billion in ground test and processing facilities, in need of $600-900 million in refurbishment and over the next 10 years. …

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