Commercial space sector can help NASA compete

Business, Science, Technology

By Nick Lampson

*Originally published in the Houston Chronicle on July 28, 2009

Forty years ago when the Apollo Lunar Module landed on the moon, we Texans had a front row seat, and our brave men and women at Houston’s Johnson Space Center inspired our nation and the world with a small step and a giant leap.

As a congressman I fought hard for more resources so NASA could continue to fulfill our nation’s leadership role in space exploration, science and technology. Today, in addition to several government space programs, an emerging commercial space flight industry made up of proven and established entrepreneurs is now able to provide many of the launch and cargo services, equipment and infrastructure needed to expand our economy and improve our security here on Earth.

Space is not merely a destination; it is an economic engine that has become increasingly more critical to economic growth and our way of life. America’s investment in space has already brought us the benefits of satellite television, global-weather-warning systems, advanced composite materials, medical devices and search-and-rescue tracking tools like GPS that have become so vital to rescue efforts in natural disasters like Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Ike.

The Space Shuttle program is slated for retirement at the end of 2010. In its place, NASA’s Constellation program is developing the systems needed to help us return to the moon and to take our next step into space and our destiny. As NASA focuses on this next important mission, access to space, including access to the International Space Station, will depend on the Russian government and other foreign entities. This foreign dependence threatens to jeopardize our security and leadership position in science and technology.

The commercial space flight industry is in a unique position to help NASA and our nation stay competitive. NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) and the follow-on Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) programs enable us to use commercial space capability to deliver cargo to the International Space Station while reducing the cost to the taxpayer.

Through these programs, NASA’s development of commercial space transportation will be augmented by both private investment and advanced revenues from sales in other markets, such as telecommunication satellite launches. Commercial providers will actively seek out new markets for their services, such as scientific research flights, national security missions and potentially flights by private citizens. Additionally, the performance-based payment contract for COTS and CRS will provide incentives for commercial providers to keep development costs as low as possible.

NASA has always partnered with the private sector to achieve its missions. By working to expand its work with the private sector, NASA will help fuel the growth of an emerging economy that will create new jobs and opportunities in Texas and across the country.

Recognizing that the growth of the private space economy will result in significant cost savings to all future government-sponsored space activities, and help develop promising new markets for the American economy, it is important that policymakers consider a strategy for continued U.S. leadership in space that relies on both NASA and the capital and initiative of the private sector.

The Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, the blue ribbon panel chartered by President Obama, met this week in Houston. Their recommendations in August could well shape the course of future U.S. human space exploration and affect U.S. competitiveness in science and technology. It is critical that we support the development of commercial space flight capabilities over the next decade for reliable, affordable access to low Earth orbit for both people and cargo. The provision of additional commercial services in space will free NASA resources for exploration and ensure that we meet our science and technology goals as a nation.

Texans know that you win by standing together — brother and sister, side by side in defense of a common vision and purpose. The next step we take into space will be accomplished in partnership with government and the private sector, but shared by all who dare to dream of worlds beyond our world. The next step we take will be fueled by that shared vision and the entrepreneurial spirit of America.

Lampson is a former congressman for the 22nd Congressional District and served as ranking member on the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee.