A Brief History

…of NASA’s resistance to commercial competition, in a comment (number 31) over at Space Politics by Al Fansome:

For the last 25 years, NASA has had to be brought KICKING & SCREAMING every step of the way — into a partnership with commercial industry. It has been resisted by the NASA iron triangle (NASA + contractors + Center politicians).

* The DOT was given the legal authority by Congress in the 1980s to regulate commercial space transportation over the objections of the traditional status quo space powers.

* Commercial payloads were taken off of the Shuttle after Challenger by the Reagan Administration over the active opposition of the then NASA Administrator (Fletcher).

* The Launch Services Purchase Act of 1990 — which was the first law mandating that NASA buy commercial space transportation services — was passed by Congress over the objections of NASA.

* Instead of partnering with the American Rocket Company in the late 1980s, NASA MSFC created a competing hybrid rocket R&D program in an attempt to put AMROC out of business. (They succeeded.)

* The Congress passed the Commercial Space Act of 1998 that mandated that NASA should purchase ISS cargo resupply services. NASA resisted that mandate for 6 years — until Columbia happened and the Bush Administration created the Commercial/Crew Cargo services budget as part of the VSE in 2004. In December 2008, over 10 years after CSA98 passed, NASA finally signed an ISS cargo services delivery contract.

* NASA is still resisting doing commercial crew — which was part of the original official VSE plan (it was the CREW/cargo services program in the VSE). It has taken a national commission of space experts — reporting to the White House — to unequivocably recommend (its in all the options) that NASA institute a commercial crew (instead of Ares 1).

* NASA could have instituted “propellant depots” as part of the national strategy years ago. Why were propellant depots so obvious to the Augustine Commission as a key enable for our national goals in space, but ignored by the traditional NASA bureaucracy?

It is not because the NASA bureaucracy is dumb. I assert the reason is that creating a depot based architecture is not in the “bureaucratic interest” of NASA, as it outsources a large portion of the supply chain for exploration to commercial providers.

Prediction — NASA will resist creating propellant depots to the extent it is given the means to do so.

I think it’s a safe prediction. Those means have to be restricted. Though at least, this time, I think that we have top NASA administration on the right side.

[Early afternoon update]

He left out the saga of the Industrial Space Facility.

6 thoughts on “A Brief History

  1. Karl Hallowell

    There’s also e’Prime Aerospace Corp. They were refurbishing Peacekeeper missiles for commercial space, but Congress blocked them from continuing. A word from NASA could have kept that from happening in my view. As I understand it, Orbital now has that niche with the Minotaur rocket. Orbital though is part of the approved circle of NASA space launch providers.

    I also heard it claimed that NASA took out an industry, very small satellite launchers (now they’d be called “nanosatellites” I guess). Supposedly six startups went out of business when NASA started their own program.

    And lest we forget, if you need a negative opinion on a space venture, there’s always a NASA consultant available to issue it.

    Point is that there’s a long list of NASA infractions where they’ve squashed either deliberately or through indifference commercial efforts in space.

  2. John Kavanagh

    Instead of partnering with the American Rocket Company in the late 1980s, NASA MSFC created a competing hybrid rocket R&D program in an attempt to put AMROC out of business. (They succeeded.)

    While MSFC and AMROC concurrently worked on hybrid rocketry, NASA didn’t steal business from AMROC; it is not as if Marshall started selling flights on hybrid rockets at a taxpayer subsidized rate less than AMROC.

    Performing R&D inside NASA isn’t necessarily a competitive act. One could argue that Marshall would have had a better return on taxpayer investment if they partnered with AMROC, but they didn’t “attempt to put them out of business.”

    Fortunately, SpaceDev acquired AMROC’s technology and brought it to market for the SpaceShipOne flights.

  3. Rand Simberg Post author

    NASA’s actions sank AMROC in a couple ways. First, it was using taxpayer money to fund AMROC’s competitors (Thiokol and Rocketdyne) to replicate technology that AMROC had already spent its own money to develop, creating taxpayer-funded competition which made it much harder for them to raise further investment. Second, the existence of the Marshall program created FUD about AMROC’s own engines, making it much more difficult for them to pursue their main market at the time (replacement of solid strap ons for the Delta).

  4. na

    the next 10 years should be spent figuring out how to commercialize the ISS. so we’re ready to do it then. instead of being immature unskilled children like we are now, left with our pants down, one rocket on the way out and no new one to come, with little space program to speak of.

  5. Scott Benson

    Also: NASA did a series of feasibility studies in the 80′s and 90′s on using US ELV’s for space station resupply. Needless to say, they never got past the STS community. Now what do we have? Russian resupply vehicles on Russian ELVs, ESA resupply vehicles on ESA ELVs and Japanese resupply vehicles on Japanese ELVs.

Comments are closed.