Thirty years ago, when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped on the moon, they broke the tethers binding mankind's feet to Earth and lofted the nation's aspirations and energies into space. Today, as the nation celebrates the 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, Congress is considering legislation that will chart the future course of America's space program. The reauthorization of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and other legislation proposing to solve some of the problems facing the U.S. space program offer Congress its first opportunity since 1992 to take a closer look at America's goals for space exploration and development.
Unfortunately, America's commanding lead in space technology and military capabilities is slipping. For example, despite the billions invested in the Space Shuttle, space exploration remains prohibitively expensive; military access to and control of space for surveillance and defense purposes are threatened by technological developments and proliferation of weapons around the world; and the U.S. commercial space industry, namely the providers of launch technology and equipment, is being encumbered by federal regulations, trade restraints, and poor contracting decisions.
The main reason the space program is floundering is that NASA began to de-emphasize space exploration in favor of politically motivated missions, such as studying the Earth's climate and financially supporting Russia's participation in the International Space Station (ISS). The result is that NASA is doing many things, but none of them well enough to maintain both the standards it set in the 1960s and America's dominance in space. Congress should re-evaluate NASA's objectives as well as the challenges and threats to America's space assets and then take specific steps to ensure that the space program gets back on course. To this end, Congress should:
- Require NASA and the Defense Department
to purchase the most cost-effective and reliable launch systems
The cost of launching payloads from the United States is prohibitive. Other nations have reduced costs significantly. Congress should require NASA and the Pentagon to identify ways to lower launch costs while increasing reliability and instruct the U.S. General Accounting Office to conduct feasibility studies on more cost- effective alternative launch vehicles.
- Fully privatize space launch
The federal government is considering whether to partially privatize launch sites, such as Cape Canaveral in Florida and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, and create a quasi-government organization, modeled on the U.S. Postal Service, to manage these sites. However, partial privatization is less effective than full privatization in reducing launch costs or upgrading these facilities.
- Refocus NASA's priorities on manned
space exploration and eliminate duplicative and wasteful
NASA spends $1.5 billion annually to study global weather patterns and vegetation growth. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration has satellites to collect data on the Earth's climate as well. Such duplication does not promote space exploration and should be eliminated.
- Establish a time line for privatizing
the Space Shuttle fleet and for establishing commercial payloads on
the International Space Station.
NASA demonstrated its support for Shuttle privatization when it established a joint venture in 1995 with U.S. aerospace companies to manage, maintain, and operate Shuttle payloads. But only NASA can approve how the Shuttle's space is used.
Moreover, NASA's plan for commercializing the station would permit only one-third of the U.S.-operated section to be used by the private sector. Congress should require NASA to promote private-sector involvement in these projects and proceed with full privatization.
- Ensure U.S. military access to and
control of space to protect national security.
U.S. military and civilian assets in space are vulnerable to attack. This could compromise not only U.S. navigation systems, but also the military's access to reconnaissance, communication, and weather information. Congress should ensure that the U.S. military is capable of controlling and defending America's assets in space.
- Seek an amendment to the International
Space Station Agreement to prevent other countries from using the
station to spy on America.
No agreement prohibits other countries from using the station to spy on the United States. The United States may give Russia up to $1 billion to subsidize its participation even though Russia maintains a "listening post" in Cuba and is working on programs that could undermine U.S. national security. Congress should require NASA to seek a new agreement that specifically prohibits countries from using the ISS for espionage.
- Streamline the monitoring of technology
transfers to protect national security.
The State Department should be encouraged to streamline its regulatory process or transfer its jurisdiction over export licensing to the Defense Department. Congress should consider guidelines for export licenses so that they do not unduly burden the commercial space industry when national security is not at risk.
- Remove restrictions that limit U.S.
commercial competitiveness in space.
Congress should review the space launch quota system to determine whether such quotas are warranted. It should require the President to certify that joint ventures with foreign companies do not facilitate the transfer of vital technology.
- Extend space launch indemnification
The indemnification authority Congress created in 1988 to protect commercial companies from third party liability will expire at the end of this year. Although the best approach is to allow the insurance industry to assume the risks and pass the costs on to commercial companies, Congress should extend indemnification authority to cover current contracts.
Bryan T. Johnson is a former Policy Analyst in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis International Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.