- policy recommendations for the current administration -


The concept of commercial space is currently very popular in the United States to the point where it is routinely being advocated and funded from within NASA and various decision-makers. Whole space organizations and lobbyists are dedicated to promoting commercial space.

The argument for commercial space is that it is the only long-term form of commercial space including for space settlement. The argument goes that space settlement will cannot be sustained unless it can be made profitable. Historic analogies are employed to illustrate that settlement only happens when there were profitable ventures such as mining. And so the discussion is about what resources might turn a settlement into a profit-making venture and hence sustainable. It is a challenging argument to make because it tends to be much cheaper to mine and deliver material on Earth than to mine and bring it back from space. Also, telerobots or AI robots can do much of the work that people could do at much less cost and far less risk.

There is a type of commercial space which is clearly profitable and economically sustainable. Communications satellites in GEO orbit have been the main economic driver for commercial space. There are several space ventures coming on line that are likely to be very profitable and are attracting a lot of investment including LEO internet constellations and LEO Earth observation constellations providing business data. However, it is most instructive that these involve no human spaceflight and require little if any governmental financial support. This true commercial space can progress on its own and don't need any public-private programs.

Starting in the mid-2000s, NASA started a set of public-private programs starting with COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services), Commercial Cargo and Commercial Crew. In particular, COTS showed itself to be a very cost-effective approach in which NASA partnered with several companies to help them develop launchers for cargo and crew to the International Space Station (ISS). The end result was that companies such as SpaceX developed new rockets at 1/8th to 1/10th the cost compared to if NASA had developed those launchers. In the case of SpaceX, that development went on to produce partial reusability, the Falcon Heavy, and has set the stage for the development of the revolutionary, fully-reusable, Super Heavy Starship. For those situations where government financial support can lead companies to produce capabilities that either significantly reduce costs to NASA or are likely to transition to true commercial (i.e. profitable), economically self-sustaining operations, public-private programs are the way to go.

However, there is a lot of so-called, "commercial" space concepts which have little chance of becoming profitable and don't reduce NASA's costs significantly. Yet because they go by the label "commercial", commercial space advocates argue that NASA should financially support them. But this risks putting us into the situation where NASA is subsidizing "commercial" space operations indefinitely thereby taking away budgetary space from other, more productive uses.

America can lead the rest of the world by showing how supporting companies can result in a cost-effective transportation system to the Moon.

Next: Commercial LEO