Jerry Pournelle Chaos Manor: On Dragon Docks, the Commercial Space Era Kickoff

The Space Station has caught the Dragon by the tail. It’s the first instance of the success of the new NASA policy.

A long time ago some of us said that NASA shouldn’t be running operations, it should create markets and let the industry take care of the rest. The government doesn’t operate the railroads, or the airlines, or the trucking industry. Even though a great deal of rail, airline freight and passenger, and highway freight is government stuff.

Fort Hood doesn’t operate trucking lines to go out and bring food to the mess halls.

It pays for delivery. Thus should it be with NASA.

In  1980 outfits such as The Citizens Advisory Council on National Space Policy – sometimes known as one of Reagan’s “kitchen cabinet groups” — wrote the transition team papers on space policy for the then incoming Reagan administration in 1980-81.

One of the papers in that report was “How to save civilization and make a little money,” by Art Dula and Larry Niven. It resulted after a discussion with the full panel.

It outlined how to create a commercial space policy. Way back then at the dawn of the 1980s.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Congress passed the Commercial Space Act of 1988 with the purpose of encouraging commercial space development.

It was followed by other Commercial Space Acts, and the transfer of commercial space regulation to a special section of the FAA, and over time a generally more favorable atmosphere for commercial space.

Henry Vanderbilt’s Space Access Society and other such outfits have annual meetings. SpaceX, X Corp, Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites, Kistler Aerospace, Carmack’s Armadillo Aerospace, and a whole raft of private space companies, some big, some small, some successful and some not so much so have sprung up.

The engines of capitalism were turned on, and the successful docking of the Dragon is a major step in the renewal of interest in space.

Government arsenals can do great things. Projects organized to implement a strategy of technology can be very successful, as witness the X projects, and for that matter Apollo; but projects don’t build industries.

The best thing government can do to build industries is to provide certain markets, or in the absence of markets, prizes. Of course we’ve said all this before, and many times. See Access to Space.

This is just the first step, but it’s a big one. I have been asked by a colleague why this is different.

NASA paid for this, didn’t it?

Yes, but not in the old NASA way, with cost-plus contracts and with NASA trying to run things as they did with Space Station. Dragon wasn’t designed at Marshall or in Houston, and NASA inspectors weren’t wandering around the factory floor and insisting in “testing” components (as Marshall did with the tanks for DC/X, which they managed to break and had to weld back together – it was the failure of the weld that caused DC/X to burn up, thus ending the DC/X threat to NASA’s plans). J

ust as NASA doesn’t operate the trucks that deliver the chow to Fort Hood mess halls, it’s not NASA’s job to build and fly the Falcon and Dragon. It just collects the cargo. And that cargo was delivered.

It’s a first step but it’s a big one.


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  • tbetz

    No, Jerry. Fort Hood doesn’t run the trucks that deliver food. The Pentagon pays Brown & Root to do it. And to transport sailboat fuel. Look it up.

    Soace-X’s shining success notwithstanding, private contracting of government services is not the magic bullet you pretend it to be. Most government contractors lack the moral fiber of Elon Musk.

  • Sky Smith

    Jerry – Thank you for your excellent historical perspective.   I’ve been a bit amazed this week at how many people believe that SpaceX is the first company to ever launch a rocket, to ever dock with another space vehicle, or who believe that SpaceX is entirely “privately funded” (as much of the press keeps incorrectly stating).  The reality is that NASA provided 70%+ of the Falcon9/Dragon development costs.   Yes SpaceX is a symbolic “big step” but it’s not a technology “first”  (thousands of rockets have launched from Earth and hundreds of space dockings have occurred before).   Yes this was the first private space vehicle to do some of those things (majority funded by the government still)- so it’s a policy/budgetary/equity innovation, but not a technical innovation as the entire press world would make us believe.   Growing up in the 1960’s and witnessing Apollo and the moon landings was truly amazing.   Having the government majority pay for a private company to do 1/10 of that, 40 years later, is less amazing.   A symbolic milestone yes, but SpaceX’s and NASA’s success this week is a tiny fraction of the true innovation of the first NASA moon landings 40+ years ago.

  • Eric Turner

    I am very exited about the interest that the commercial sector is showing in space travel. This is a significant step for the space program and will only lead to bigger things. My question is: What is the role of NASA to be in the future? As I understand it, their focus is supposed to shift to interplanetary missions. I personally feel that they should combine their efforts with the private sector to create a sustainable lunar colony that can then be used to launch missions of exploration deeper in the solar system.

    • Ant Pruitt

      I’m sure a lot of people agree with you, Eric.

      -RAP, II

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