Professor Notter univ 200 1: 00 P. M



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Cody Drain

Professor Notter

UNIV 200 1:00 P.M.

13 April 2015

Semester Essay Final Draft

Getting In On the (Space) Act: Space Exploration and the Privatization of Space

As you begin to read this, take a moment to consider that our Sun, which provides for all of the life on our orbiting planet Earth, is just one unremarkable speck in the estimated billions of stars that exist within the confines of the Milky Way Galaxy. The sheer size and mysterious nature of our galaxy, and the universe that expands to nigh-incomprehensible lengths beyond it, serve as features that attract scientists the world round and many governments besides to place a large emphasis on exploring the stars that are so familiar to us from the night sky. The United States is no different in this regard: take the 2014 fiscal year as a prime example, where the Office of Management and Budget reports that NASA was allotted a budget of $17.7 billion (United 155). However, the most surprising development for American space exploration has very little to do with government spending: instead, private industry is making a massive push to enter the market. A handful of private businesses are leading a general movement of the private sector into an industry previously dominated wholly by the likes of NASA and other world governments. Their efforts have been so promising to this point that NASA itself is providing financial and technical support to a select few, helping to drive their advancements even further. This trend has resulted in a polarizing debate, where supporters point to the possibility of a burgeoning space tourism industry that could be opened to the public while others express concern over the private sector’s capacity to meet the demands of spaceflight and the transportation of human life in the confines of space. In the end, though, the evidence will show that the ongoing privatization of space, while far from foolproof and not without some issues that yet need to be addressed, is a positive force on the future of space exploration in the United States because it is more cost-effective than previously government-dominated strategies, allows for NASA and private industry to operate within their respective skill sets, and because it is aligned with the American public’s desire to continue fostering national involvement in future human space exploration efforts near Earth and beyond.

The phrase “privatization of space” is meant to refer to the increasing presence of private interests in space exploration operations. It is important to note that this trend isn’t particularly new, but instead these efforts have been repeated many times over for 30 years or more, as Taylor Dinerman of The Wall Street Journal points out (Dinerman). What is particularly noteworthy about this ongoing wave of privatization in space and space exploration is NASA’s hands-on involvement in these efforts. According to Dennis Stone and his fellow researchers in an Acta Astronmatica article entitled “NASA’s approach to commercial cargo and crew transportation,” in 2006 NASA began the COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) initiative, a program where private businesses who met NASA’s expectations would receive funding to continue developing useful technologies (Stone et al. 192). In doing so, NASA hoped to stimulate private industry in order for it to take over much of the routine resupply flights between Earth and the International Space Station (Stone et al. 192). NASA provided this funding in the form of “Space Act Agreements,” the first of which came in the form of $485 million meant to be shared between SpaceX (or Space Exploration Technologies, founded by Tesla founder Elon Musk) and Rocketplane Kistler (RpK) (Stone et al. 193), only for RpK to drop out of the program the following year due to failing NASA’s economic expectations (Dinerman). In the years since, NASA has awarded a majority of its Space Act and contract funds to Boeing and SpaceX, with Boeing receiving $4.82 billion and SpaceX receiving $3.144 billion (National). Under this model, several businesses have developed propulsion systems and cargo-carrying capacities that allow for privatized resupply missions to the International Space Station. These NASA initiatives have without a doubt spurred on the private sector to develop sophisticated space exploration technologies; the question is whether or not these developments are the right direction for the future of American space exploration. And a variety of factors ultimately seem to suggest that while still in need of some refinements, this privatization is indeed a positive force on the whole of American space exploration efforts.

One such positive factor of the privatization of space is its cost-effectiveness as compared to previously government-only programs. Already NASA’s initiatives have drastically cut the price tag for a mission into space. In fact, the sheer savings NASA and the U.S. government have seen so far are staggering. In an article for Forbes entitled “Houston, We Have a Market: Privatizing Space Launches Pays Off Big,” USC adjunct professor Greg Autry and Wharton School assistant professor Laura Huang point out that “the total COTS investment of approximately $700 million is about half the estimated (fixed and operating) $1.5 billion cost of a Space Shuttle flight” (Autry and Huang). David Masci, Senior Researcher at the Pew Research Center, concurs, and adds that NASA’s most recent contract with SpaceX and its Falcon 9 rocket is costing NASA only $166 million per launch to the ISS (Masci). These comparative savings are tremendous, and suggest that the American taxpayer may not need to be held responsible for the price tag of a future ambitious space exploration project. Already space resupply missions have been drastically reduced in cost without a drop in effectiveness. Considering the still fresh memories of the 2008 recession, it is important that such an important function is protected against future economic downturns and government reductions in spending by both reducing government’s personal cost in routine spaceflight operations while providing for these resupply operations in an affordable and reliable manner. The current pattern demonstrated by the likes of SpaceX and its competitors suggests that this approach does all of these things and more. But this newfound cost-effectiveness doesn’t apply solely to the present day. It also shows promise for the future of all of American space exploration.

The private sector has promised that this reduction in the cost of routine space missions will not stop here but continue on to even more incredible lows. Leading this mentality is none other than SpaceX, which is pursuing the development of reusable rockets, which could deliver supplies to the ISS and then return again safely to Earth to be refueled and used again. As Masci explains, “the company estimated that once its rockets are able land back on Earth and, after re-fueling, quickly be re-launched, the cost for a trip to the ISS could drop to as low as from $5 million to $7 million” (Masci). Obviously, if the private sector could eventually reduce the cost of a mission to the ISS to such a remarkably low price, it could revolutionize the future of spaceflight for all of the American public. Such a low price tag would inevitably open the door for space tourism, perhaps at an affordable price that many Americans could take advantage of, not only the extremely wealthy. It might also make the effort of resupplying a lunar or Martian human colony much easier to bear, improving the possibility that either or both of these idyllic objectives becomes a reality in the near future, much sooner than perhaps expected here and now. Opening the door for these missions in turn creates the opportunity to continue exploring our planetary neighbors and their moons for any signs of life or potentially human-friendly living areas. In other words, the cost-effectiveness of the privatization of space could serve to propel the space exploration industry in America in a way that hasn’t been seen since the Apollo program, if ever. This, in turn, could have a massive impact on the future human race by giving it the chance to find secondary homes within our solar system, or else to take advantage of resource-rich locations in order to spare destroying Earth to any greater degree. But this is just one of the benefits the privatization of space has on the future of American space exploration.

Another positive factor the privatization of space holds for American space exploration is that cooperation between NASA and private industry unites completely opposite motivations to complete a much more robust space exploration product. Put simply, the way forward in space is so expensive and intensive that each side may very well need the assistance of the other and each other’s respective skill sets. Working together gives both sides the chance to concentrate on what makes them great in other areas. In an article for the peer-reviewed journal Space Policy entitled “Rethinking public-private space travel,” Chad Anderson explains that “the commercial space industry can build upon the existing transportation infrastructure and make it better by focusing on profits, cost-cutting, and efficiency. NASA can focus on what it is meant to do, that which pushes the boundaries of human knowledge and has common value but no clear path to profitability” (Anderson). Autry’s and Huang’s argument that this strategy would free NASA to focus on research and development would fall under such an idea of common good with no immediate profit opportunities (Autry and Huang). As for the commercial industry’s approach as Anderson describes it above, some are quick to point out that the profit motive might be just what the space industry needs. In an article posted for Gizmodo titled “Why Space Travel Matters More Than Ever,” Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan argues that “Private space companies are the inevitable end result of the socioeconomic circumstances of our world […] Space tourism is not the goal. It is a pragmatic business model for companies that don’t have the budget that NASA once enjoyed” (Campbell-Dollaghan). She also suggests that this current trend is not unlike the earliest forms of commercial air travel, which were aimed first at the richest customers before becoming affordable enough for the common citizen to utilize (Campbell-Dollaghan). In other words, allowing the private industry to share the weight of space exploration with NASA allows NASA to develop new space exploration technologies that can ferry humanity out to the ISS and beyond into our solar system, while the private industry can standardize and make more efficient the production of these vessels and propulsion devices. This in turn opens the possibility for the public to enter the space industry through space tourism and perhaps even colonization, once the technology has enough time to reach that point. By allowing both sides to utilize their unique talent bases to their full potentials, the American space exploration industry could explode in productivity and new developments such as we’ve never seen before. Such improvements could radically change the face of space exploration as compared to how we see it today.

Some have suggested, however, that this most recent wave of privatization in space is, like all of the others, more hype than substance, and that it is doomed to fall short of its own lofty expectations. In an article for The Wall Street Journal entitled “Space: The Final Frontier of Profit?” Taylor Dinerman explains that of twelve major attempts by private industry to enter space in the past three decades, only one can be called anything close to a success and remarks that “building vehicles capable of going into orbit is not for the fainthearted or the undercapitalized” (Dinerman). He also argues that creating a regulatory checklist to properly certify vehicles as space-worthy and then insuring them via conventional methods would be a nightmare by contemporary standards that would take years upon years to complete (Dinerman). Similarly, others have argued if the U.S. decides to wait on private industry to catch up and be regulated and insured, the quality of spaceflight by U.S. firms might suffer as a whole. David Masci identifies a group that argues against putting faith in private industry in this matter, including among them former astronaut Neil Armstrong. According to Masci, Armstrong and others argue against the entry of private industry into the space exploration business because they fear that the sheer amount of time that would be needed to see even the smallest gains in private industry efforts would force the U.S. to rely on foreign space agencies, like that of Russia, to get American astronauts to and from the ISS (Masci). This in turn could endanger the availability of transportation services for American astronauts depending on various political climates and tensions, and in turn could severely damage the American space program as a whole.

However, there are encouraging reasons as to why this current trend of privatization in space is unlike any that have preceded it. First, while government funds have been involved in the past, under these Space Act Agreements NASA has been giving these private corporations direct insight and technical expertise that may not have been available to such efforts before. For the early stages of the COTS initiative Stone et al. classified NASA as that like a “lead investor” (Stone et al. 193). In other words, NASA has had a direct hand in these efforts from their very beginnings, and used the requirements of the COTS initiative and expectations of the Space Act Agreements to see to it that at each step of the process the private industry efforts were not only showing improvement but were passing certain guidelines as well. As for insuring these private spacecraft, it may very well be feasible that NASA can vouch for their safety and reliability, seeing as NASA has followed each effort from the start. And these efforts aren’t being made by the “fainthearted,” either; if anything, these corporations are making the most sophisticated and patient pushes to entire the space industry that have ever been witnessed. These efforts bear the markings of carefully considered plans, and therefore while the U.S. may indeed need to spend the next few short years receiving transportation assistance to and from the ISS from other nations (if this indeed turns out to be the case in the first place), the overall end product justifies the wait. Where other private efforts have fallen short before, these new programs seem to be focusing on avoiding the same mistakes in order to move the industry dramatically ahead as soon as possible.

This dramatic shift in vision for the future of American space exploration has led some to voice concerns that handing such a large responsibility to private interests will corrupt the final product and cause far more problems than any possible benefits can justify. One such new problem suggests that a large presence of national private space transports and equipment in the space around Earth will inevitably lead to another military showdown between competing spacefaring nations. In an article published in Space Policy entitled “Privatization and militarization in the space business environment,” Patrick A. Salin argues that private space businesses even now behave as if they are by extension national representatives and as such as protected by any applicable national protections (Palin 20-21). This arrogant behavior will only serve to anger and embolden other nations to enter the space environment as well, which could make tensions more enflamed than ever before. As Palin states, “Outer Space only knows national flags, so that the increasing presence of private entities will inevitably lead to raising protection issues, diplomatic and military, paving the way for the militarization issue” (Palin 21). Any military conflict in the space around Earth’s atmosphere could have a devastating impact on the conditions of life on Earth, especially when one considers the incredible fuel sources it takes to launch rockets and the like to locations as close as the ISS. Palin concludes that international space law must be enforced and private businesses closely regulated, “in order to lead towards an authentic multilateral cooperation that effectively serves mankind’s interest” (Palin 25). This classification of the privatization of space exploration as a hasty and quite possibly dangerous alternative to the best way forward in a way echoes Dinerman’s final conclusion, whereupon he declares that “NASA’s policy is neither bold nor new; it is yet another exercise in budget-driven program cancellation” (Dinerman). Put simply, many have argued that multinational cooperation is preferable to the risks involved with allowing private interests to drive the industry forward.

Such concerns as these make it clear that cooperation between nations (and within nations between their governments and these private businesses) is a necessary component of any successful future space exploration projects; yet in spite of this, completely minimizing the benefits of allowing the private sector to operate in the space exploration business will likely lead to a lack of growth and development in this industry. This in turn flies directly in the face of what the American public desires out of their national space exploration program. According to Masci, “nearly six in ten Americans say it is essential for the United States to continue to be a world leader in space exploration” (Masci). The best way to ensure that the United States retains such a position is to encourage cooperation between the private sector and the government. Only with this strategy can the risks and costs be best minimized in order to maximize the rate of growth and development in the industry. And there is no doubt that the American public wants to see the industry continue to grow and become more robust. As Campbell-Dollaghan explains perfectly, “plenty of questions about the commercial space industry will remain. But the one we’ll always know the answer to is if space travel is worth pursuing” (Campbell-Dollaghan). This trend of privatization in space isn’t an instant fix for all of the obstacles that lay between humanity and the stars, but this current approach of cooperation between the private sector and the government (meaning NASA) provides the most encouraging path forward. By creating more ideal conditions for this continued growth, the industry is better prepared to meet the expectations of the American public. By meeting these expectations the industry can then expect in turn to receive a more profitable result, which will ultimately lead to the expansion and improvement of the industry once again. In other words, permitting the private industry to share some of the responsibility of the industry could possibly create a cycle that speeds up the process of providing humanity with a path to the rest of our galaxy and beyond. As for the many obstacles that yet need to be addressed regarding the proper balance of private and public interests, Palin himself might reveal an answer when he suggests the creation of “a dedicated non-political international body that we do not yet have, a ‘World Space Cooperation Organization’ (WSCO)” (qtd. in Palin 25). By extending this spirit of cooperation from private-public bodies within a nation-state to cooperation and understandings between all countries on Earth, the possibilities that await the global space exploration effort grow enormously. Humanity’s gateway to the starry skies may only be available through a united effort from the entire species.

The privatization of space is not a panacea for the complicated and unpredictable world of space exploration efforts. Despite this, blending the privatization of space with pre-existing government efforts would seem to provide the best chance for success moving forward. Neither side, government nor private sector, should be asked to carry the effort alone. A patient and cooperative effort between both sides has already yielded positive results that might have seemed hopelessly unlikely some ten or twenty years ago. Continuing and expanding the depth and sophistication of this cooperative mentality will serve to bring humanity that much closer to exploring the more remote reaches of our galaxy. In doing so, we may hope to find valuable resources that are running out on Earth, and perhaps we will one day find evidence that more life exists not only within the universe, but within our own Milky Way neighborhood. Humanity will one day have to explore for other homes to settle along with our first home, and our species will be in a better situation if we have the capability to do so sooner rather than later. As an editorial published by The Dallas Morning News declares, “Exploration and experimentation is what humans have done since we began walking the earth. Some explorers were eaten by wild beasts. Others were swallowed by giant ocean waves. Instead of halting exploration, we learned from mistakes, adapted and continued to advance” (“Editorial”). If history is any clue, it is humanity’s destiny to eventually surf the stars in search of answers to life’s greatest questions. While there are questions that must be answered along the way, this cooperative effort must be embraced as the best path forward to accomplish such a central goal for the future of humans everywhere. As the private sector’s resources and the government’s knowledge and experience are continually combined, humanity comes ever closer to the day when it no longer merely looks up at the stars, but is able to look back at Earth from among them.

Works Cited

Anderson, Chad. “Rethinking public-private space travel.” Space Policy 29 (2013): 266-271. Elsevier. Web. 26 Feb. 2015.

Autry, Greg and Laura Huang. “Houston, We Have a Market: Privatizing Space Launches Pays Off Big.” Forbes. Forbes, 2 October 2013. Web. 13 February 2015.

Campbell-Dollaghan, Kelsey. “Why Space Travel Matters More Than Ever.” Gizmodo. Gizmodo. 1 Nov. 2014. Web. 6 Mar. 2015.

Dinerman, Taylor. “Space: The Final Frontier of Profit?” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, Inc. 13 Feb. 2010. Web. 26 Feb. 2015.

“Editorial: Persevering with space exploration.” Editorial. The Dallas Morning News. 7 Nov. 2014. Web. 6 Mar. 2015.

Masci, David. “SpaceX launch illustrates NASA’s growing use of private companies.” Pew Research Center. Pew Research Center, 14 April 2014. Web. 13 February 2015.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration. “Commercial Crew Program—The Essentials.” NASA. NASA, 2015. Web. 25 March 2015.

Salin, Patrick. “Privatization and militarization in the space business environment.” Space Policy 17 (2001): 19-26. Elsevier. Web. 6 Mar. 2015.

Stone, Dennis et al. “NASA’s approach to commercial cargo and crew transportation.” Acta Astronmatica 63 (2008): 192-197. ScienceDirect. Web. 26 Feb. 2015.



United States. Executive Office of the President of the United States. Office of Management and Budget. “Fiscal Year 2014 Budget of the U.S. Government.” White House. Office of Management and Budget. April 2013. Web. 24 March 2015.

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