Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Constellation vs. NASA's Bold New Space Initiative: Commerce

Both Constellation and the new NASA budget generate economic activity, at the expense of taxes that tend to inhibit economic activity. No matter what approach NASA uses, when it spends a certain amount of dollars, it's going to set off a certain "baseline" amount of economic activity as it pays for contractors, who in turn pay for employee salaries, pencils, hardware, computers, and so on. To some extend these events in turn result in more economic activity. What I'm interested in is identifying "value added" or "growth-oriented" economic activity beyond this baseline. First I'll take a look at Constellation.

Constellation is centered on building NASA rockets and spacecraft. This hardware isn't available for use beyond NASA's programs. Thus, the "value added" economic activity generated by Constellation is hidden in the matrix of suppliers for small parts and services. Since NASA's 2011 budget will have similar "value added" cases where suppliers are enabled to generate additional business, I'll consider this type of business as equivalent for Constellation and the 2011 budget.

Lunar Business - The major economic benefit promised by Constellation is the beginning of lunar space business. The theory is that once Constellation starts serious astronaut activity on the lunar surface, NASA will have a need for commercial partnerships to deliver supplies, mine resources, and contribute robotic helpers. These services would in turn be applied to other customers.

There are several problems with this promise. One major problem is the great risk that Constellation will never reach this stage. Another problem is that, since Constellation is not expected to be able to reach the lunar surface until year 2035 or so, economic activity is deferred so long that it's hardly worth considering today. Yet another problem with the theory is that there is no way to ensure that NASA will suddenly decide to use commercial services at that point, rather than using the Ares rockets and other NASA work more. Finally, there is nothing preventing NASA from shifting away from the Moon to some other destination once it's done a few astronaut sorties on the Moon. Thus, Constellation's promise of lunar business is quite weak.

The 2011 budget includes the following "value-added" economic activity.

Space Technology - Participation in this portfolio includes commercial partnerships, such as SBIR and STTR arrangements. The technologies chosen are meant to make commercial (and other) space activities more affordable and capable. Example technologies include sensors, smallsats, robots, materials science, communications, propulsion, and affordable space access. It's easy to see, for example, how improvements in these technologies would be useful in the commercial communications satellite industry. This portfolio includes prizes, which often include small business competitors that develop their businesses while competing.

Heavy lift and Propulsion research and development - The projects within this category can include commercial partnerships, and thus may enable "value-added" business if the commercial partners are interested in the technology as a business driver rather than as a source of profit.

Critical Technology Demonstrations - The projects within this portfolio can involve commercial partnerships, and thus may enable "value-added" business if the commercial partners are interested in the technology as a business driver rather than as a source of profit. In-orbit propellant transfer has the potential to be a driver not just for commercial businesses to supply fuel depots, but also for commercial businesses to supply fuel from Earth and perhaps even derived from space resources. ISRU is also one of the technologies cited here, and that could result in commercial businesses for fuel (as just mentioned) or other goods. Other technology demonstrations may have similar commercial potential.

Commercial Crew and Cargo - Naturally commercial crew and cargo services encourage commercial activity for the ISS. The overall level of economic activity is increased if a COTS-like approach is used, since the development funds include not just NASA money, but also commercial investments to implement the services. In other words, NASA "matches" commercial investments that otherwise would not happen.

There are many facets of this commercial crew and cargo transportation beyond just the ISS. The rockets may be used for all sorts of non-NASA business. The same is true of the spacecraft. For example, new rockets or existing rockets with more shared costs can address commercial and government satellite launches, commercial crew launches to non-NASA destinations, and "DragonLab" sorts of science missions. The crew and cargo capabilities could enable a whole new commercial space station industry with numerous additional business possibilities.

Earth and Climate Science - The additional traditional Earth observation satellites funded by the 2011 budget should at a minimum encourage new technology and satellite industry support that can be applied to NOAA, military, commercial, and intelligence Earth observation satellite missions. There is the potential for "hosted payload" or "data purchase" type of business in this category, too, although that is purely speculative. The small new Venture class missions may help enable commercial smallsats, reusable suborbital rockets, and other small aviation and space businesses with potential beyond the NASA market. Some of the additional funding may be applied to the computer market for data analysis, and that market has plenty of commercial potential.

Planetary Science - The additional funding here can be enabling for similar commercial businesses, such as spacecraft launch, satellites, and robotics.

Robotic Precursor Missions - This new line of missions can be enabling for similar commercial businesses, such as spacecraft launch, satellites, and robotics.

Full Utilization of the ISS - The ISS can be used to encourage new commercial rocket and spacecraft businesses to supply the station. The station can also be used for technology demonstrations with commercial potential, such as inflatable structures and refueling. Some of the research performed on the ISS may be for commercial interests, such as pharmaceutical companies.

21st Century Launch Complex - The overhaul of KSC may open up many new "value-added" business opportunities like cost-effective launch services.

Aeronautics and Green Aviation - The new programs for fuel efficient aviation, national airspace safety, and UAVs in the national airspace all have the potential to enable commercial business.

Much has been made of the new commercial crew opportunities in the 2011 budget. This alone might be enough for the 2011 budget to surpass Constellation in "value-added" economic potential. When all of the other opportunities to promote business growth are considered, the 2011 budget clearly has much more potential than Constellation in the economic category.

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