Space Abhors a Policy Vacuum; Part II, Expanding the Vision, Developing a Consensus

Part II: An Expanded Strategic Vision For the Nation, Not Just NASA

As discussed previously there is a frequent equality in reports from various government chartered studies and reports between developing a strategic direction for NASA and developing one for the nation.  This approach is decades old and it is my opinion that it is a false equivalency that is at the root of why we have not obtained a national consensus in developing a strategy for space.   Broadening the scope of the discussion by using the intellectual foundation of spacepower theory will be further explored here to illuminate a different basis for obtaining the desired national consensus.

Its the Economics Stupid…….

The above paraphrase of an old political quote is apt in describing the approach to developing a strategic space direction for the nation within the contextual framework presented here.  To recap, Jon Sumida’s excellent opening chapter essay in Toward a Theory of Spacepower used the writings of Alfred Thayer Mahan who wrote the definitive early text on how seapower influences the history and power of a nation (military seapower theory and how that is intertwined with the economic power of a nation).  Sumida translated the treatment of this subject by Mahan into the space realm.  Here is a restatement of the pertinent questions related to a national strategic space policy and a further illuminating quote from Sumida’s chapter:

Mahan’s major concerns and his questions about them can be restated in terms of spacepower as follows:

  • What is the economic significance of the development of space activity, and to what degree does future American economic performance depend upon it?
  • What are the security requirements of space-based economic activity?
  • What role should the U.S. Government play in the promotion of space-based economic activity and its defense?
  • What kind of diplomatic action will be required to support space-based economic activity and its defense?

Mahan’s writing about seapower suggests the following answers. First, activity in space will, in manifold ways, have large and growing economic effects, and will therefore be highly significant for the economic future of the United States. Second, the security requirements of space-based economic activity will involve costs that are beyond the means of any single nation-state, including the United States. Third, U.S. Government policy can support the economic development of space and contribute to the defense of such activity, but the dynamics of both will be largely determined by private capitalism and other nation-states with major interests in the space economy. And fourth, American diplomacy should encourage international economic activity in space and be directed toward the creation and sustenance of a multinational space security regime.

Thus the question becomes does space contribute to the economy of the country or is it a perpetual sink of funding.  It is well known that we have a commercial space industry that stands apart from NASA and it is treated in the world of strategic policy as a completely separate entity.  However, this is not the case when you look at it from the integrated point of view of the Space-Mahanian construct.  Thus a short overview of this industry is appropriate.

Space Market Segments

In looking at the broader context of the space economy it is instructive to look at the segments of the industry and their revenue.  This is just recently started to include human spaceflight and thus begins the crossover between what has in the past couple of decades seen to be completely different realms.


It is an undisputed fact that space activity today is economically significant.  In the Futron 2012 State of the Satellite Industry Report the global space communications industry generated $289.8 billion dollars in revenue in 2011 alone.  Figure 1 shows this in relation to the overall telecommunications industry:

Global 2011 Satellite Industry Revenues as a Proportion of the Telecommunications Industry
Figure 1: Global 2011 Satellite Industry Revenues as a Proportion of the Telecommunications Industry

The Futron report further states that the global satellite industry revenues grew by 175% from 2001 through 2011, a 10.7% growth per year.


Communications is not the only industry segment that is seeing growth.  The GPS (or as the evolution goes GNSS) industry growth has also been remarkable.  While most numbers for GPS revenues are behind paywalls, a 2011 report by NDP consulting on the Economic Benefits of Commercial GPS in the U.S. and the Cost of Potential Disruption provides some astounding numbers.

….the direct economic benefits of GPS technology on commercial GPS users are estimated to be over $67.6 billion per year in the United States. In addition, GPS technology creates direct and indirect positive spillover effects, such as emission reductions from fuel savings, health and safety gains in the work place, time savings, job creation, higher tax revenues, and improved public safety and national defense. Today, there are more than 3.3 million jobs that rely on GPS technology, including approximately 130,000 jobs in GPS manufacturing industries and 3.2 million in the downstream commercial GPS-intensive industries. The commercial GPS adoption rate is growing and expected to continue growing across industries as high financial returns have been demonstrated. Consequently, GPS technology will create $122.4 billion benefits per year and will directly affect more than 5.8 million jobs in the downstream commercial GPS-intensive industries when penetration of GPS technology reaches 100 percent in the commercial GPS-intensive industries…..[emphasis added]

This is from a military funded satellite constellation that did not exist 23 years ago.  Note that the above numbers are only for U.S. sales, the multiplier on a global basis is at least 5x.

Remote Sensing

In the commercial remote sensing world the growth has only started in the last decade.  Figure 2 is a modified version of a chart from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report on commercial remote sensing:

Figure 2: Commercial Remote Sensing Revenue Growth 2004-2009
Figure 2: Commercial Remote Sensing Revenue Growth 2004-2009 (latest public data)

The recent growth in yet another sector points to a robust future in the major space segments of the commercial markets.  Thus when you look outside of the NASA bubble, the satellite market is an increasingly important segment of our economy.

Commercial Cargo and Crew

A recent organic development at NASA has been the development of the market for cargo for the International Space Station (ISS) which will eventually lead to a further market for crew.  A lot of the impetus for this began in the space advocacy community, enabled by the passage of the Commercial Space Act of 1998.  The Act has as its policy statement:

The Congress declares that a priority goal of constructing the International Space Station is the economic development of Earth orbital space. The Congress further declares that free and competitive markets create the most efficient conditions for promoting economic development, and should therefore govern the economic development of Earth orbital space. The Congress further declares that the use of free market principles in operating, servicing, allocating the use of, and adding capabilities to the Space Station, and the resulting fullest possible engagement of commercial providers and participation of commercial users, will reduce Space Station operational costs for all partners and the Federal Government’s share of the United States burden to fund operations.

This is fully consistent with the NASA original act and its 1984 modification that the NRC report includes in its report. The NRC report also indirectly references the Commercial Space Act of 1998 in describing the relationship of the NASA Commercial Cargo and Crew contracts. The NASA contracts for commercial crew are having a large influence on the market for Low Earth Orbit (LEO) launches.  This is show in figure 3, which is the latest (2012) forecast by the FAA on launches and payloads to LEO between 2012-2021:

Figure 3: LEO Payloads and Launches 2012-2021 (From the FAA Report)

Fully 50% of all commercial launches into LEO in the next ten years will be for commercial crew and cargo.  This is an astounding change considering that prior to 2012 that number was zero percent.  This emphasis on commercial crew and cargo by NASA has a twofold rationale.  The first is that with the end of the space shuttle, the United States no longer has a means to fly crew or cargo to the ISS.  This hardly is a leadership position.  The second is that the NASA system built with the traditional contracting methods (Orion and the Space Launch System [SLS]) will not fly humans to the station until late in the second decade of the century if then.

With two successful flights of cargo to the station, newcomer aerospace company SpaceX is showing that it is possible for a non traditional procurement method initiated with a non legacy company with its own funding, can provide the government with services that it otherwise cannot obtain through its own contracting methods.  This has profound implications going forward and a great opportunity to meld the efficiencies of the commercial world with NASA’s core flight programs.

The Current State of Affairs and Ideas for a Consensus Strategic Space Policy.

The Current State

Rather than a strategic plan, it seems that what we have today is the organic growth of capabilities that have been enabled by various interests within the government.  Decades ago it was the investments by NASA and the DoD in communications satellite capabilities that gave birth to what is now a vibrant industry.  It was the investment in a military capability (GPS) to provide accurate positioning information for military purposes that has given rise to the GPS industry that day by day further permeates our lives. It was the investments and risk taking in contracting by the DoD that enabled the relatively new commercial remote sensing industry to reach critical mass of revenue that allows for further growth.  It has been the impetus of the Commercial Space Act of 1998 and NASA’s ability to enter into other transaction contracts (funded and non funded Space Act Agreements that side step the Federal Acquisition Regulations) that are bringing about a new era in the commercial support of human spaceflight.

What we have as a state of play today is clearly a hodgepodge of disparate interest within the government looking for ways to lower costs and create new capability within budget constrained environments, bringing a defacto strategic space policy into play, at least for activities in Earth orbit.  Thus we have the foundation, based in successful organic policy development, to answer question 3 posited by Sumida above as question 1 has already been answered. (it is outside of the scope of this article to talk about defense or diplomatic themes)

What role should the U.S. Government play in the promotion of space-based economic activity and its defense?

Breaking the Funding Barrier

One of the biggest problems that new technological approaches and systems have is that space is capital intensive, has a high perceived risk, and the Venture Capital and other private investment means are risk averse and unwilling to make big bets on space, for the most part that is.  Elon Musk’s SpaceX has raised capital but not until Musk had risked tens to hundreds of millions of dollars of his own funds due to his passion for space.  Most good ideas don’t have this foundation but have a similar potential for game changing developments.

A question inevitably arises related to the incumbent aerospace companies.  They could do these things, but the experience is that they are far more wedded to evolutionary change, and they also rely on the government to provide the funds that allows them to bleed some off for new ideas.  The fact is that most large aerospace corporations simply are uninterested in any new venture that the government does not pay for, and even then after it is done, the record is that they don’t exploit the new capability for commercial purposes.

The biggest deterrent to this is that the government itself has a conservative streak, preferring to bet on more established players, the third and fourth tier companies that still have a bit of entrepreneurial impetus.  While this does provide some means of bringing new capabilities to bear, it also sets the stage to block new ideas.  Thus further incentives must be provided.

Tax Policy

One such incentive is based in tax policy, to help shift the balance from risk to reward.  This has been the basis of my advocacy of the Zero G Zero Tax legislation, that would remove from taxation the companies that do things in space beyond the current activities of communications and remote sensing.  I wrote about this subject for various publications and a link to one of them is here.  Please read for background information.  The bottom line is that it provides incentives for investors that help them shift their risk/reward calculation for providing funding for high risk ventures.  Even this is probably not enough and brings to mind other forms of direct government incentive to develop the economic potential of space.

Direct Incentives

Direct Incentives can take several forms and NASA’s work with the CCDEV and COTS provides one route.  Other routes can spring from NASA’s need to develop the capability to carry cargo and crew beyond LEO.  NASA has had some success in this by the offering of prizes to incentivize new developments.  The NASA Grand Challenges comes to mind but these need to be increased in both scope and funding.  Today the Google Lunar X prize has a $25 million dollar prize for the first commercial lunar lander.  Recent experience with the teams shows that this number is about a factor of four insufficient to allow the participants to raise the funding needed to actually be successful and build a sustainable enterprise.

Prizes, direct investment, public private partnerships, these are all methods for bringing about progress in space, which provides well paying jobs, increased economic activity and greater security for the nation.  However, at the end of the day, this organic growth of a policy is at the tactical or implementation level, what about the strategic policy?

A Simple, Direct, and Understandable Strategic Space Policy

The economic, industrial, and social development of the solar system is the policy of the United States in space.

This proposed statement is both generic as it is encompassing.  It is not that much farther beyond OSTP head John Marburger’s statement on space policy in 2006.  It is actually interesting that NASA’s 2011 Strategic Goals, Outcomes, and Challenges fit well within that goal.  However, that goal can also be seen as so lofty as to allow for not ever actually having to do it.  Thus there are several steps on the way that can flesh out the plan.  These could be.

The first step in the economic, industrial, and social development of the solar system is the ability to move humans and cargo around on an at will basis within the confines of the gravity well of the Earth and the surface of the Moon.  Additionally, a lunar infrastructure development will be enabled that will provide for the beginnings of a lunar industrial base to support further economic expansion.

This is our first step, and to harken back to the historical cast of the Mahanian construct, this is the same as ancient sea faring civilizations operating in the Mediterranean sea.  Since we are working toward ubiquitous transportation within this realm it opens up a lot of opportunities and capabilities for private enterprise.  This also starts the development of off planet resources in a manner that supports further outward development and reduces the cost and the complexity of a supply chain dependent on the Earth.

The second step in the economic, industrial, and social development of the solar system is to place permanent human settlements on Mars and enable a second outpost and civilization for mankind.

The NRC report pointed out repeatedly states that multiple presidents and NASA both want to send humans to Mars.  Besides science, no one at NASA or the administration (any of them since Apollo) have talked much about what these humans would do when they get there.  The most boring thing imaginable would be to watch a bunch of scientists walk around on Mars picking up rocks.

A very innovative architecture was postulated a few years ago that the trip to Mars by humans could be much more cost effectively carried out if the trip was one way.  There would be a LOT of volunteers and it is fully within the spirit of the strategic plan to do so.  Mars cannot be the sole province of science, the second possibly habital planet in our solar system is too important.  This would also work to develop an industrial base on Mars for further development.

The third step in the economic, industrial, and social development of the solar system, will be to extend mankind’s reach beyond Mars to the asteroid belt, the Moons of the Jovian worlds and beyond to the edge of the solar system.

There is absolutely no technical reason why these things cannot happen.  There is also every financial reason that the resulting expansion of mankind’s domain will bring vast new wealth to the Earth.  It is a simple fact that if the Gross National Product of the United States was $50 trillion a year rather than $15 trillion, that we would not be having these discussions about not being able to afford healthcare for our citizens or to keep Social Security solvent.  This takes us back to the core concept of the spacepower theory development that space is simply an extension of the land, the sea, and the air as a domain for economics, politics, and the development of the potential of all mankind.

Note:  Now that I am to the end of this, to me it begs further development.  Next time I will start from the three steps above and discuss how this could play out.  This is not a fantasy, nor is it discussing things multiple decades away.  We have real problems here on the Earth and developing the technologies to develop the resources of the solar system for the benefit of all mankind is a viable way to move forward with our civilization that will bring far more benefits than other proposed major social and industrial changes to our civilization that are based only on the resources and capabilities of our single planet.


8 thoughts on “Space Abhors a Policy Vacuum; Part II, Expanding the Vision, Developing a Consensus

  1. I think what needs to be factored into all this is that the NRC committee was specifically tasked with evaluating the strategic direction of NASA. Not the strategic direction of the nation with regard to space. As noted, the national investment in space HUGELY exceeds the national investment in NASA. So what it comes down to is what role NASA should be expected to play for the nation in space. What tiny part of space investment should NASA sink its tiny teeth into?

    It is hardly clear to me that NASA is an agency that should be responsible, or even responsive to, the needs of some imagined space economy. Science is a clear and valuable rationale that industry will not invest in. I agree that with regard to human space flight, NASA’s work with the CCDEV and COTS is constructive, but is constructive only in supplying money (and perhaps a motive), and not otherwise enabling. Truly, one of NASA’s biggest expenditures, that of SLS, will not serve the need. How many private entrepreneurs will buy an SLS?

    As to moving humans and cargo around in cis-lunar space, NASA has ably demonstrated many capabilities. But asking it to build an economy in space, and a transportation architecture that can serve that economy, is just wrong. That’s never been what NASA has been about. In fact, since the economic value of rocks in space has never once been demonstrated, the detailed support requirements for such an economy, and the transportation architecture that would serve it, are quite unclear. The steps that are proposed here are a handwaving approach to riches and happiness. But if you scratch the surface, there isn’t a lot there.

    Now, that being said, trying to reach for a compelling rationale for space activity outside of Earth orbit is defensible. The idea of “exploration”, if not in the name of science, is fundamentally about adventure, and the taxpayer is reluctant to pay for adventures by other people. Exploration as a rationale for human space flight is somewhat of a scam in that regard. As we start to realize that, we’re desperate for a rationale that sounds halfway defensible, and making loads of money is as good as any. But again, when you scratch the surface, there isn’t a lot there except for gilded dreams.

    1. Heinrich

      I both agree and disagree. NASA is perceived by most observers to be the be all and end all of our national direction in space. I do understand that the mandate was to look at strategic plan for NASA but at the same time and using the same verbiage they talk about a national consensus. It is my position that by keeping NASA out to the side, while at the same time in the national consciousness NASA = space, just leads to confusion and contributes to the inability to reach a national consensus on space for NASA or anything else.

      I also agree that it NASA should not be the state director of a nationalistic economy in space. However, the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 and its modifications clearly and directly charges NASA with the task of fostering commercial space, the only agency with this clear mandate.

      The act specified that NASA
      shall plan, direct, and conduct aeronautical and space activities to increase scientific knowledge; support
      the development of advanced aircraft; develop and operate advanced spacecraft; consult with the
      Department of Defense (DOD) and other federal agencies regarding matters of mutual interest; strongly
      encourage commercial activities in space; and ensure that the United States remains a leader in
      aeronautics and space.

      In 1984 Earth science was formally added as one of NASA’s objectives. In addition, the act was
      modified to mandate that NASA “seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest
      commercial use of space.”

      Thus NASA is commissioned with the goal of fostering commercial space and therefore that is where such government directed efforts should be focused. The Commercial Space Act of 1998 further enshrined this with NASA. This is besides national enabling legislations like Zero G Zero Tax.

      You mention SLS and you are absolutely right SLS is not in keeping with this charter and thus is another reason for its cancellation.

      As for moving humans and cargo around in cis-lunar space, I strongly beg to differ. NASA has no such capability today, at all period. The SLS will not provide this capability, especially at its low launch rate. Thus a strategic policy such as the one proffered provides a means whereby to judge specific NASA investments and provide a means of triage in times of financial stress. In this scenario ISS is commercial enabling due to its ability to provide access for any number of vehicles, technologies, and commercial customers that want to use it.

      I also take exception to your claim that human space travel beyond LEO is “fundamentally adventure”. It is not, any more than the exploration and economic development of North America was done for “adventure”. It is about the concrete development of the resources of the solar system to supplant any limited notion of the limited amount of resources on the Earth.

  2. Dennis,

    You make a number of solid and thoughtful points in these two posts. There has been a glaring lack of foundational thinking about space, and it is a deficit we’re only now beginning to address. You might be interested in a report the Space Foundation released in December about NASA’s strategic direction called “Pioneering: Sustaining U.S. Leadership In Space” ( You might find Chapters 2-5 of the main report most relevant to the points you’ve made here. I would certainly welcome your comments and feedback.


    G. Ryan Faith

  3. Dennis, This post reflects to a large degree my thinking about the way forward. I believe that the petition at is consistent with this approach.

    I believe that the establishment of a cis-lunar transportation infrastructure based upon the exploitation of lunar ice is something that can be accomplished at much less cost than most would assume. Yes, it would serve and expand existing markets and likely open new ones. However initially, it could be justified by the fact that it would supply needed propellant to NASA itself at a lower cost than currently. That plus NASA has a legitimate interested in seeing the establishment of a permanently manned lunar base. Although the economic rationale for such a base would be to maintain and expand a telerobotic mining workforce, NASA would benefit by the propellant produced, experience in establishing off-Earth bases, and the science more easily done from such a base.

  4. Interesting thoughts Dennis. I just don’t see how the nation will buy into these ideas. Your first recommendation ends with the sentence, “Additionally, a lunar infrastructure development will be enabled that will provide for the beginnings of a lunar industrial base to support further economic expansion.” This is the same “build it and they will come” argument that was used for the space station. We built the space station, and we’re having a devil of a time getting people and organizations to come to it without continued significant government funding. If we can’t show that the model works for something as simple and close to the earth as the space station, how can we even begin to convince the politicians and the public that the same model will work for the moon, Mars and beyond?

    I agree with everything you’re saying Dennis. These are all the right steps to take to ensure the long-term survival and prosperity of humanity. I just don’t see it happening anytime soon. The growth I see will build on the existing, successful business models built around remote-sensing and communications, and improving their on-orbit technology in terms of performance and serviceability.

    I could be wrong and I hope I am. I’ve just seen too many grand plans, strategies and reports come and go to think anyone can produce any persuasive argument in today’s social and economic environment that is going to be any more successful than past recommendations by the likes of the 1986 National Commission on Space (The Paine Report) and the 1987 Sally Ride report, “Leadership and America’s Future in Space,” to name a few. At this point I would be ecstatic if we could just have the same primary NASA mission survive the change of political administrations! At least then we’d stop wasting taxpayer money.

    1. Bill

      I understand what you are saying, however there is a difference between the development of a lunar industrial base and the space station itself. Space station’s original justification was as a staging ground and platform for exploration. The old dual design and even going as far back as Von Braun’s space station ideas of the 1950’s. The problem with station, as you well know, is that when exploration was killed in 1993, NASA shifted the justification for station to microgravity research. The problem with the microgravity research is that the two things that were needed to make that work (frequent access, and low cost access repetition for experiments), never materialized. There is also almost no production capability on the station with NASA actively discouraging production type operations.

      However, in the more expansive scenario that I postulate for the Moon, ISS then becomes a valuable asset, a staging ground for vehicles going and coming from the Moon and beyond. ISS becomes a transportation hub, not a microgravity lab. This is actually the way that you reduce the cost of the lunar effort. The Mike Griffin era NASA wanted to ignore the station’s potential because it rendered moot the investment in the huge heavy lift launch vehicle, which is the antithesis of frequent access to space. Today we have vehicles from five nations that are capable of bringing payloads to the station, and in concert with other outposts, such as L1 and the lunar surface ISS will reach its original design potential.

      The growth I see will build on the existing, successful business models built around remote-sensing and communications, and improving their on-orbit technology in terms of performance and serviceability.

      Yea, I agree with that but there is no conflict between the two, actually lunar industrialization enables the emergence of an entirely new generation of platforms in GEO and other orbits that make today’s systems look primitive.

    2. Bill. With icy lunar polar regolith being at least 5.6% water, refueling on the Moon becomes feasible as would be transporting water for propellant to LEO for use:
      – boosting satellites to MEO & GEO and
      – interplanetary missions of NASA & other countries.
      That’s existing markets.

      After that comes new markets which it is reasonable to anticipate:
      – NASA willing to purchase some of its future propellant needs,
      – circum-lunar tourism,
      – satellite servicing,
      – large GEO communications complexes,
      – manned missions (NASA & others)
      – lunar surface tourism

  5. Good day! I know this is somewhat off topic but I was wondering if
    you knew where I could locate a captcha plugin for my comment form?
    I’m using the same blog platform as yours and I’m having difficulty finding one?
    Thanks a lot!

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