Paul Spudis expresses his own concerns about the space debate, and defends Gene Cernan. Included in his piece, though, he inadvertently describes exactly why it’s hard to take Cernan seriously:
What did Cernan actually say? He has doubts about many of the claims made regarding “New Space,” specifically claims in the press about costs, schedule and capabilities. Cernan’s point is that it’s easy to design paper rockets and make hyperbolic claims about “new approaches” but in the business of space, things don’t always work as expected. Cernan also questions what markets will support commercial space (much of the focus is on NASA contracting with New Space companies to service the ISS with cargo and crew) and even questions the designation “commercial,” both on the grounds of the aforementioned non-existing markets and the reliance of some commercial space companies on NASA funding to develop their product.
If that is Cernan’s point, then he’s making it from some other planet. On this one, the “commercial” (whatever one means by that) companies don’t have paper rockets, but real ones. The Atlas Vs and Delta IVs that reliably launch defense satellites, and have been for years, are not “paper rockets.” Was it a “paper rocket” that put the Dragon into orbit in December? Was the Dragon a “paper capsule”?
Beyond that, Cernan doesn’t just “question” the markets, he completely ignores their existence. Bob Bigelow, who recently expanded his manufacturing plant in Las Vegas to build his own space facilities that only await completion of a means to reach them before he launches them, isn’t a market? Of course, Paul does the same thing:
New Space companies claim that they are commercial enterprises developing new space vehicles. If they are truly commercial, what markets do they serve? NASA is a government agency and has contracted for products and services from its beginning. A commercial company takes money from investors and sells a product or provides a service for profit. Commercial companies have access to NASA technology, so why do they also require and receive government subsidies?
Is he saying that SpaceX hasn’t taken money from investors? Because it has. That’s how it got started. Is he saying that they haven’t sold a product or provide a service for a profit? Because external audits by independent accounts indicate that they have, for several years running. And what’s with the word “subsidies”? Does he understand the meaning of that word? SpaceX (and OSC, and Boeing, and others) has provided a service or product (in the form of performance milestones) to the government in return for a fixed fee. In what way is that a “subsidy”? And even if it is, it’s not like it’s unprecedented. The airmail purchases of the governments played a key role in getting the early airline industry off the ground, both figuratively and literally. Even to this day the Civil Reserve Air Fleet underwrites some of the cost of the airline industry to ensure its availability for national needs (e.g. a surge of transportation required for a war, as happened in Desert Storm).
But some of this confusion can be allayed by thinking of it not in terms of “commercial” or not, but simply the nature of the contract. Traditionally, NASA has done things with cost-plus contracts, which result, eventually (assuming that it doesn’t get canceled first) in the product being delivered, but at horrifically high costs to the taxpayer (Constellation being an example of this, with the added disaster of it being sole-source no-bid, which compounded the problems from a lack of competition from the very beginning).
What is being proposed in the new paradigm is a) fixed-price contracts for defined milestones and b) multiple providers, creating on-going competition to drive down prices. And the notion that this will be beyond NASA oversight, as Captain Cernan seems to imagine (for no reason I can fathom other than that he has been paying no attention whatsoever to what has been going on), is ludicrous. If anything, the potentially undue amount of NASA oversight is putting a pall over the program right now, and if it fails, at least in its goal to reduce costs, this will be the most likely reason.
So if people are having trouble discussing this, it’s not because people are looking at the same set of facts, and coming to different conclusions. It’s that some people are completely oblivious to facts, and seem to be operating from false headlines and bombast from pork defenders on the Hill and industry, instead of reality.