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
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
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
- 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
- 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
- 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.