NASA: A Collaborative Customer, Source: Google Images
This title is a well-worn phrase sometimes used by NASA and other government managers as self-deprecating humor to help loosen up an audience before they give their presentations. It usually draws some laughs, and more than a few groans. But what are its origins, what does it mean, and why should we, who support space commerce, even care?
The phrase was a favorite of President Reagan’s who liked to say that it contained "The nine most terrifying words in the English language.” The cynical but provocative underlying message was that government can’t really help solve problems - it only makes things worse. We all have our favorite examples of government-related failures (Katrina anyone?), but we often forget that in the main, government does work. Most would not agree that the solution to poor government performance is to eliminate it. But we usually agree on the need for better leadership, more public oversight, and direct citizen involvement in the process - and we should balance the budget too.
But how does this classic remnant of “Reaganism” relate to our advocacy goals for government’s support of the commercial space enterprise? Those nine scary words suggest an old style of government that we must pressure to be more open, effective and democratic. This is essential in part because government has a critical role to play in facilitating the emergence of entrepreneurial space commerce.
Only the government can work to ensure that the bureaucratic barriers to space access for U.S. entrepreneurs are low, and also ensure there are reasonable safety guidelines in place. Government can also commit to being a reliable customer for companies who are able to provide good value, but make it known that it expects to be just the first of several customers, as space commerce grows. Government needs multiple commercial providers and doesn’t want to be any industry’s only customer. That’s way too risky for all as has been learned many times over in the aerospace contracting industry.
Looking just at NASA, it has a congressional legislative mandate, and the President’s and NASA Administrator’s strong support to help increase the private sector’s ability to provide lower-cost infrastructure services for more frequent access to space. There is understandable resistance to this by some members of Congress whose regional and state funding might be negatively impacted by the increasing use of emerging commercial space companies. However, the U.S. can no longer afford the higher costs of solely accessing space via government-developed, and contractor-operated and maintained transportation systems. We must utilize and adapt to the new emerging lower-cost more effective options, or lose our ability to compete in the increasingly global space marketplace. There is evidence that some traditional aerospace entities intend to be involved in providing new commercial space services too, which would bring more healthy competition (and some buyouts?).
We will not have cheaper and more reliable access to, and utilization of space unless there is a profit motive driving private investment. Thankfully, NASA is demonstrating the power of government investment in space transport via a public-private partnership with industry termed Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS). NASA ensures that funds are available to industry competition winners for needed infrastructure development only as they meet pre-defined milestones, including the capture of specified private investment funds. The end goal is for the government to be a customer and purchase needed services at a much lower cost and thus save resources and increase reliability and safety driven by market competition. It’s a win-win and U.S. industries can once again become major competitors in the international space access market with many national benefits, including the development and sale of new space infrastructure technologies globally (new jobs).
NASA needs to think like, and learn to be, what I call a “collaborative customer”, a coined phrase that recognizes its dual role in commercial space. As a customer it can buy services from industry such as transport of cargo and eventually astronauts to space, but it also needs to collaborate with the private sector to support its market entry and participation in space infrastructure development, such as systems for automated docking with the ISS. The new NASA Commercial ReUsable Suborbital Research (CRuSR) Program will also allow NASA to be a collaborative customer in support of research in near-space. Changing most things, including government is always hard, but now we must muster it within NASA. Or, as put more directly by a NASA colleague of mine, "If you don't like change in NASA, you'll like irrelevance even less".