Recommendations to the Aldridge Commission

The wide range of contributions to the commission is indicative
of the wide and complex impact of space on the US and the world.
You have heard from workers employed in space activities, who care
about their own jobs and also know first-hand the economic impact of
space spending, and the innovations it brings. You have heard from
educators about the inspiration space provides to young people.
You have heard from scientists and other people who care deeply
about fundamental questions of our solar system and universe.
You have heard from private entrepreneurs who, despite
market obstacles and uncertainties, have invested their own money in
technologies they believe will greatly expand access to space for
private and government use. You have heard about the need to protect
our planet from asteroids, and the economic opportunities that energy
and material resources in space can bring. And you have heard from
people with aerospace and defense expertise about large-scale long-term
project planning, and some of the inherent difficulties in any such
endeavor.

All of these need attention; but more important than any individual
area (and related to the project planning issue) is the fundamental
complexity of it all. It would be very unwise to repeat our past mistakes
and try to create a single “program” that encompasses everything we want
to do with space; there are thousands of people in this country and
around the world who are eager and willing to make their own ideas for space
activities bear fruit, and rather than try to adopt all the good ones
in some centralized fashion, what we need is to find
ways to make widespread innovation possible, and leverage the national
investment to the greatest extent we can.

A helpful analogy is the “fitness landscape” of complexity theory,
which looks at the evolution of self-organizing systems, such as
our economic infrastructure. The evidence of disparities among nations
implies that there are many distinct “fitness peaks” that the different
nations have optimized towards, some more successful than others; some
even leading to needless hardship and poverty. New technologies and
capabilities and changing world conditions continually alter this
“fitness landscape” that our societies are working within, and
space technology is one of those that holds the promise of new peaks
of literally astronomical economic prosperity – if we can make
the transition.

Because to make that transition means taking risks, as you have heard.
It means moving away from our current “peak” of relative comfort and
allowing exploration of those paths that could lead us
to become a truly space-faring nation. Only embarking on such a path can
hope to fulfill all the space-related aspirations of the many interested
groups you have heard from. It means working to create new
“landscapes” within our nation’s economy that encourage companies
to find their fitness peaks out on the space frontier. How do we do that?

More important than government spending here is, paradoxically,
steady and reliable government planning. If businesses know, year in
and year out, what our national priorities in space are, what efforts
will receive technology incentives, tax credits, or direct funding, they
will be much more likely to commit their own dollars to help fill the
niches that such plans make available. Stable government plans lower
the intrinsic risk for business investment in space, and help create
a stable economic landscape that will enable businesses to
better explore the new opportunities and innovations that are possible.

Of what should these stable plans consist? This commission will likely
produce a prioritized list of technology and exploration areas for the
near future. This will provide a starting point, but then these plans will
need steady maintenance and revision, and the bi-yearly congressional
cycle is too short a time-scale to bring the needed stability.
An independent national oversight board for space activities,
in a sense an ongoing version of this commission, is needed to provide
that steady hand at the wheel. Representation on the board should come
from all the constituencies; a good model might be the National Science
Board which establishes policies and oversees strategic budget decision
making for the NSF, as well as providing policy advice on science and
engineering research to the President and Congress.

Such a “National Space Board” would have a diverse set of members
appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Membership would
change only slowly (5 year turnover, say) to ensure continuity
in planning. The role of Congress would be to establish the overall
budget and the department or agency structures needed to successfully
implement the ideas recommended by the board. The board would for the
most part focus on prioritizing work under reasonable continuing budget
assumptions.

Now, on spending money: wherever we spend government money (if spent
within our nation), the direct impact is roughly equivalent – the
money goes to people who spend it in their communities etc. The
indirect impact from development of spinoffs certainly varies,
but arguably is not much higher for spending on space than say on
energy programs or defense.

But there is another impact from government spending, more important than
either of these two. That is the intrinsic worth of what is purchased
for the money spent. It is exemplified most plainly in spending
on roads, or for example internet infrastructure in the early years;
education and health spending are other examples where the
benefit is pretty clear and direct. That is, the actual product
of the spending is itself an economic good that
contributes to productive economic cycles.

Such virtuous cycles are the entities that sustain real economic
growth – by feeding back on themselves some of their own fruits,
they enable their own exponential expansion, at least until a
saturation point is reached. We have seen this very plainly in
recent years with computers and information technology; information
technology products are themselves information-intensive, and
greater information-handling capacity greatly contributes to
each new generation and growth in the industry. Similarly in past
major cycles of energy-based industrialization and electrification,
and in many other pathways in between, major economic growth stems
from the positive feedback of a new class of economic products
on itself and on the economy as a whole.

Space also holds significant potential for such virtuous cycles for
economic products. Lower cost reliable space access enables new
large-scale markets such as tourism, whose expansion allow for
economies of scale that further lower costs. An in-space service
economy can develop. The first materials circle that could close in space
may be for rocket fuel: however much hydrogen it has, the Moon certainly
has abundant oxygen, the heaviest component of rocket fuel, and an
economy of material exchange between low Earth orbit and the lunar surface
has significant growth potential.

But the real critical point will be the first economic cycles that fully
close the monetary loop between space and Earth. What can space bring that
has value to us on Earth? Information is already the exchange commodity
for existing commercial satellites. Space-manufactured materials and
fuel brought to earth orbit could help expand their performance
and utility. But the next logical commodity for exchange
seems likely to be energy. Whether solar power from space, or possibly
lunar He-3 for fusion, space has vast energy resources far beyond what
we have sustainable access to on Earth. And energy is a commodity
that Earth is desperately in need of as our fossil fuel supply rate hits
its limits (see David Goodstein’s “Out of Gas” for instance).

At this point Dr. Tyson would likely ask, why aren’t companies already
taking advantage of such potential growth opportunities? What is there
the government could do to make any difference here? In answer there
are two specific roles for the government to enable these cycles, which
should be a focus of long-range planning by any new
“National Space Board”:

(1) Provide a stable regulatory and funding environment that encourages
economic developments in the right direction. A minor example would be
offering the same $4/Watt incentive to space energy installations that various
state power authorities offer to consumers for solar installations. The
purpose of this is to maintain the economic “fitness landscape” to make
those economic peaks with space development easier to reach.

(2) Fund demonstration projects that make the leap, at least part-way, to
a new “fitness peak”. Where not enough is still known about, for example,
lunar materials, funding basic research projects also helps in this regard.
But real technology demonstration projects involving, say, lunar
oxygen generation would greatly enable follow-on improvements to processes
and economic development by private companies.

There is a trap that must be avoided in this, and one which the existing
NASA centers may have a great deal of trouble with. The space oversight
board must pay attention to demonstration projects to ensure that
they do not become self-perpetuating government monopolies.
Direct hand-off to private companies is one approach, but it must be a
complete hand-off. Simply limiting the demonstration in scope and time
should help. We need to avoid the trap we were caught in with the
Shuttle – that this becomes the ONLY space transportation system we need,
rather than a simple technology demonstration project.

Perhaps the best way to avoid this trap and ensure the success of this
economic development focus is to favor funding the largest possible
number of demonstration projects. This could be done by limiting their
size to a certain level (say $1 billion total), and the funding period to,
say, 5 years. While this may seem small-scale compared to
current major space projects, it helps avoid the costs of large-project
complexity by adopting a sort of “agile” success-first approach as has
been recently implemented by many companies in their information technology
efforts. It also enables a continual stream of exciting projects
or “missions” to be in the pipeline, an essential element in retaining
public support.

There is likely no lack of project ideas on this scale – “confirm lunar
polar water”, “demonstrate nuclear reactor in space”, “closed-loop
environment system for lunar base”, “install lunar infrared telescope”,
etc. The board would review project proposals of this sort with rough
assessments of cost and scale, and decide on prioritization.

A prize system such as put in place now for the Centennial prizes could
help make this happen, though with perhaps too low a guarantee of success.
The very successful pattern of NASA’s Discovery-class
missions may be worth following for this new class
of projects. NASA centers, universities, and private companies could each
bid for these projects.

What about human spaceflight, human bases etc? There may be some
demonstration projects, for example initial explorations that enable
later tourism, that make sense for government funding that explicitly
requires a human presence. But for the most part, we should put humans
in space when they economically make sense – in particular, with a focus
on demonstration projects, leave it up to the bidding institution to
decide whether to complete a project completely robotically or with
on-site human help.

An institution may decide for its own purposes to establish a
human-tended lunar base which is then available to bid
on a variety of demonstration projects of this sort. A private company
might establish a lunar base to contract out to universities or
NASA centers for such demonstrations, as well as for its own private
use. We really needn’t worry – humans do still make economic sense
for many purposes – and even without that, there’s still plain exploration
and tourism. Mandating humans (or mandating robots only) makes no
economic sense, and the purpose of these demonstrations is at heart
to enable growth of new virtuous economic cycles that will bring
renewed economic growth and vitality to our nation, and the world.

In conclusion, then, repeating the two specific recommendations:

1. Establish a National Space Board, similar to the National Science
Board, to provide stable long-term planning and oversight of
the nation’s space activities, including policy recommendations on
budgets, taxation, regulation, and technology incentives to the
President and Congress.

2. In planning, focus on enabling the key components of potential virtuous
economic cycles: lower-cost access to space stimulating space markets,
lunar oxygen for in-space refueling, production of energy in space
for sale on Earth, etc… These are the pieces that,
as we’ve experienced in use of computers to design new computers,
can lead to truly exponential economic growth. This focus would appear
in two areas: the general policy recommendations and incentive
structures recommended by the Board, and prioritized lists of
demonstration projects that could jump-start these new economic
engines.