Commercial space pioneers led by Hawthorne-based SpaceX are pressing the federal government to overhaul the way it regulates and finances space exploration, insisting bureaucratic barriers that stifle innovation and speed must be removed.
At the first National Space Council gathering in 24 years this week, Vice President Mike Pence led the highly publicized meeting with a directive — to “return American astronauts to the Moon, not only to leave behind footprints and flags but to build the foundation we need to send Americans to Mars and beyond” and for America to “win the 21st century in space.”
Pence, speaking Thursday at the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C., didn’t indicate if changes would be made. But he did say he’s eager to support innovation in the industry.
“We find ourselves in a position where the U.S. has not sent an American astronaut beyond low-Earth orbit in 45 years,” Pence said. “Here we are in 2017 still relying on the Russians to ferry our astronauts to the International Space Station at a cost per seat of more than $76 million.”
U.S. astronauts can be delivered to the Moon within five years, said companies represented at the gathering. But only with a more competitive, level playing field that allows businesses with the best, most affordable systems to prevail rather than promising taxpayer funds to select companies.
“Overall, the council can work to alter and improve procurement agility and flexibility so that the government can behave more like a commercial buyer where applicable,” said SpaceX Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell. “If we want to achieve rapid progress in space, the U.S. government must remove bureaucratic practices that run counter to innovation and speed.”
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has previously taken issue with slow government licensing processes and about $1 billion set aside in the federal budget for United Launch Alliance (ULA), a Boeing and Lockheed Martin partnership.
The commercial space market is ushering in a “renaissance” in space, Shotwell said, pointing out that SpaceX launched more rockets this year than any other company in the world and also developed proven technologies to quickly reuse most of its advanced, relatively low-cost space-going equipment.
Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos’ commercial-space venture, Blue Origin, echoed Shotwell’s concerns.
The company’s developing a heavy-lift rocket called New Glenn and proposed to build a Blue Moon Lunar Lander to help build businesses on the Moon that would further deep-space exploration, said Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith.
“Blue Moon can be done within the next five years,” Smith said. “This has been accomplished with virtually all private money. The opportunity before you is to further U.S. leadership in space by ensuring that the United States drives the coming economic expansion in space. This can only be done through public-private partnerships.”
To the Moon and beyond
A week prior, Musk outlined his plan to reach the Moon in five years and then move on to Mars: A reusable 4,400-ton rocket, dubbed BFR — or, as Shotwell said, Big Falcon Rocket — that can hold 150 tons and hop around Earth, the Moon and beyond.
The company has its manufacturing headquarters in Hawthorne and recovers rockets and spacecraft it’s already flown at the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro. But Musk said he needs another manufacturing site to produce BFR, which needs more space than the Hawthorne facility offers.
He didn’t say where he plans to built it. Los Angeles Councilman Joe Buscaino, whose district includes the Port of Los Angeles, said Musk would be welcomed with open arms in San Pedro.
“If Elon Musk wants to come to San Pedro, we will continue to roll out the biggest red carpet,” Buscaino said. “With this BFR rocket, San Pedro would be an ideal location because of its close proximity to Hawthorne and the fact that we have a water line that Elon can transport it.”
SpaceX and Boeing are now competing to build astronaut-grade rockets and spacecraft for NASA to fly by next year. The winner will be the first U.S. company to deliver people to the International Space Station since 2011.
SpaceX, however, is already looking well beyond that goal with BFR.
“NASA has a deep-space gateway proposal but they don’t have a lander or return vehicle. So SpaceX has put together a complete package,” said Greg Autry, a USC entrepreneurship professor and former White House space policy adviser. “Elon might put humans on the Moon in 2022, which would be as fast as NASA, if not faster and with a more economical, complete system.”
Boeing, which makes satellites in El Segundo and is the government’s primary space contractor, also called for a “bold space agenda.”
“We see a future in robotics and automation in space, in the area of space manufacturing,” said CEO Dennis Muilenburg. “We see opportunity for zero-gravity and low-gravity manufacturing by combinations of humans and robots.”
‘Time for swift and bold action’
To keep its fast-paced growth, Shotwell told the council that SpaceX also needs to be able to move more quickly through the government’s licensing process.
“Regulations written decades ago must be updated to keep pace with the new technology and the high cadence of launch from the U.S. if we want a strong space-launch industry here at home,” Shotwell said. “Now is the time for swift and bold action. A permanent presence on the Moon and American boots on the surface of Mars are not impossible and they are not long-term goals.
“You have the opportunity to help accelerate low-Earth orbit and deep-space efforts by employing public-private partnerships to yield speedy and efficient results. And by implementing meaningful regulatory reforms.”
Listening closely to the presentation were commercial space companies moving into the burgeoning U.S. market, including Jim Cantrell, CEO of Vector Space Systems, which has a Huntington Beach operations center.
Like SpaceX, Cantrell hopes the government revises its traditional financing system that favors certain companies.
“I don’t like NASA picking the winners and losers a priori,” Cantrell said. “This is a capitalist country. In the Soviet Union, it was the government that picked the winners and losers. ULA is wired into the budget, so there’s no incentive for ULA to do better and act more efficiently. The new century is upon us and it’s not about the old Soviet system.”
Autry said that the council’s approach to space exploration already represents a dramatic change in policy.
“That the economics and national industrial outcomes are being considered from the get-go changes everything,” he said. “It’s extremely beneficial to companies like SpaceX.”
But he’s “slightly concerned” by the lack of commercial space insiders advising the council.
“There’s nobody on the council who is strongly familiar with commercial companies or their needs,” Autry said. “These are people who are good at their jobs but they’re traditional space policy people.”
Cantrell, who is moving fast and furious to position his company as a leader in the technology-enhanced space market, isn’t waiting around for the government to make its next move.
“I support the fact that they’re bringing the Space Council back and bringing attention to the issue of space exploration and what we do with NASA. I hope they can be a constructive force,” Cantrell said. “I think the government is struggling with the dominance that technology has had over last couple decades and making strides.
“I look forward for that to happen but i’m not gonna wait around for it. We’re busy on our own path.”