NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project
Commercial Crew & Cargo Program Office
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Rebecca Wright
Alexandria, Virginia – 21 June 2013
[This oral history with James A. M. Muncy was conducted via telephone
from Houston, Texas to Alexandria, Virginia.]
Today is June 21, 2013. This telephone interview for the NASA Commercial
Crew & Cargo Program Office History Project is being conducted
with Jim Muncy, who is in Alexandria, Virginia, and is a longtime
advocate for commercial space. The interviewer is Rebecca Wright,
who is in Houston, Texas at the Johnson Space Center History Office.
We thank you again for your time and the information you’re
about to provide. We’d like for you to share with us briefly
your background, and the role that you have had in the advancement
of commercial space ventures.
I have been working in space policy and politics for over 32 years.
I’ve had jobs on Capitol Hill and in the [President Ronald W.]
Reagan administration at the White House [Office of Science and Technology
Policy]. I’ve consulted in industry and done some consulting
for government agencies. I think of particular interest to the topic
of the COTS [Commercial Orbital Transportation Services] Program,
from 1995 through 2000 I was a professional staff member of the House
[of Representatives] Science Committee, working on commercial space
issues, particularly commercialization and privatization of activities
relating to the International Space Station [ISS].
After leaving the Hill, I consulted for a company called Constellation
Services International [CSI], which was engaged in trying to develop
a number of commercial in-space services, the primary of which was
commercial cargo delivery to the International Space Station. I was
a vice president at CSI, working anywhere between half and nearly
full time for about six or seven years. I think that’s the key
background point that informs our discussion today.
In addition to that, since I left government in 2000 I’ve also
done a lot of consulting for the commercial space transportation industry,
including large and small companies in both orbital and suborbital
markets. I’ve worked to help write and enact legislation that
provides for appropriate regulation of commercial space transportation,
as well as appropriations and authorizations that fund and give guidance
to the government in buying commercial space transportation services.
So I work here in Washington, DC, to try to create the right framework
of funding and regulations and policy to enable commercial space companies
to be able to deliver goods and services for private and public customers.
That’s a summary of what I do.
If we can, let’s break it down and go back. Can you give some
specifics of the work that you’ve done that helped formulate
some of the legislation that helped move toward where we are now?
Let me give you an example that directly relates to COTS. In the late
1990s, I worked for Congressman Dana [T.] Rohrabacher from California,
who was Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics
in the late 1990s, and also with full Committee [on Science, Space,
and Technology] Chairman [Robert S.] “Bob” Walker and
full Committee Chairman [F. James] “Jim” Sensenbrenner,
I wrote provisions that went into NASA authorization or commercial
space legislation that was enacted—signed by President [William
J. “Bill”] Clinton—which directed NASA to start
creating more commercial opportunities at the Space Station, and even
begin to privatize some of the functions of operating the Space Station,
including transportation to and from the Space Station.
This was a time in which the [Space Shuttle] Challenger [STS 51-L]
accident was a decade behind us, and the Space Shuttle was operating
on a regular basis. This was long before the Columbia [STS-107] tragedy.
NASA was making investments in potential replacements to the Shuttle,
but the Shuttle was clearly the workhorse that was servicing and supplying
and, of course, at the end of the ’90s, starting to assemble
the International Space Station.
What I was arguing for and my bosses were arguing for was starting
to figure out how to have the private sector play a role of doing
the more pedestrian work, of delivering underwear and groceries and
stuff like that to the Space Station. That we don’t need to
have the Space Shuttle do all of that; some of it could be privatized.
In a world where you privatize those deliveries, you’ve created
an additional market for the commercial launch industry, which can
then increase their own private investments and their capabilities.
You start to see the sort of innovation and lowering of prices, and
hopefully generation of new markets and new opportunities, that would
allow for a renaissance of commercial space activity.
I think what we’ve begun to see now, today, with SpaceX’s
[Space Exploration Technologies Corp.] success in delivering payloads
to orbit for NASA, in the form of Dragon [capsule] delivering cargo
to ISS, and the Falcon 9 [rocket] is competing aggressively in the
commercial satellite launch market. It’s winning market share
back from foreign countries, and lowering the cost of access to space,
and will, in fact, begin to impact the market, the prices, and the
costs of doing things in space, doing things at the Space Station.
It will take time, but hopefully we will see a growing amount of commercial
activity up there.
That was exactly the result we had hoped for when we were writing
provisions of the law back in the late ’90s. Saying that if
we can start to privatize this, if we can start to move towards commercially-owned-and-operated
launch vehicles doing more of the pedestrian, workaday space transportation
stuff, while NASA focuses on its more challenging missions of going,
perhaps, beyond Earth orbit—we didn’t talk about that
specifically at the time, but the idea was that we wanted NASA focused
on technology and on science and on exploration. Certainly now, everyone
talks about focusing NASA on exploration beyond Earth orbit.
The idea was, let’s see if we can’t apply normal capitalistic
principles and normal market forces to low-Earth orbit space transportation.
That’s what we pushed for, and lo and behold, 15 years later,
we’re starting to see it.
How has the political environment changed to allow these doors to
open? Or has it?
I would actually argue that it’s changed, but it hasn’t
necessarily changed in a good way. Back then, Congress was fairly
enthusiastic about the idea of turning more responsibilities over
to the private sector. Maybe because the Shuttle was there and everyone
was happy because the Shuttle was operating—so while we were
starting to push these ideas, there wasn’t a tremendous resistance
to that in Congress. Of course, there was obviously some resistance
inside NASA. It took a long time for NASA to really get behind the
idea of turning over regular cargo resupply of the Space Station to
the private sector.
[The White House] OMB [Office of Management and Budget] created a
program in 2000 called Alternate Access to [Space] Station to begin
buying services, but NASA didn’t ask for it, and it took a lot
of work to force NASA to even do studies of what was possible. Frankly,
it actually took a new NASA Administrator, Mike [Michael D.] Griffin
coming in and saying, “We’re not going to just do studies.
We’re actually going to fund demonstration flights and start
buying services.” It took a combination of continuing pressure
from Congress and new leadership in the executive branch to actually
make something happen.
But, more recently, there have been political issues associated with
carrying that to its next logical step, which is for the private sector
to start transporting humans to and from low-Earth orbit for NASA.
There’s been a strong resistance to this idea for the past few
years, largely because the Shuttle was retiring and there was doubt
and confusion about what NASA would be doing in terms of human exploration
beyond Earth orbit. Today, in 2013 there’s still controversy
about the idea of commercial crew, although that’s starting
to change because of the success of commercial cargo.
SpaceX has successfully delivered cargo to Station three times now,
and now Orbital [Sciences Corporation] has succeeded in launching
their Antares rocket once. It’s ironic—you can have changing
tides or trends of opinion in different parts of the government, different
players in the process. Congress has become more resistant to change,
while NASA has become more supportive. Of course, OMB has remained
very strongly supportive throughout because they know it will save
Some of the same people in Congress have stayed consistent. Rohrabacher
is still there, and is now Vice Chairman of the full Committee [on
Science, Space, and Technology] and still champions this. Others,
who are more concerned about the loss of Shuttle-related jobs or loss
of funding for other human spaceflight programs are saying, “We
shouldn’t be doing this commercial thing. We should just be
funding the government program.” This even comes from conservative
Republicans, who you would think would be more supportive of privatization.
It’s strange, and this is not unique to space that you’ll
have ebbs and flows of policy and attitudes in the government and
in Washington. But in the aggregate, I would say the progress has
been steadily positive. Sometimes it’s two steps forward and
one step back, but it’s plugged away for 15 years now and we’re
really starting to see results.
Tell me what you believe the results of the implementation and the
success of the COTS program at NASA has shown Congress and has shown
the private companies. What is the reaction from the outside of the
COTS program and what its benefit has been?
Obviously, different audiences have different views of what the results
are and what the benefits are. What I think COTS has shown, fairly
conclusively—although SpaceX only has a few flights under their
belt so far—is that if you form a partnership between NASA’s
in-house experts and NASA acting as a customer, you can free up the
private sector team to innovate more, to be more creative, to find
ways of doing things more cheaply than are done by traditional cost-plus,
government-managing-the-contractor arrangements. There are times in
which those more traditional approaches are appropriate, but I think
this has been a strong demonstration that a partnership model, a more
commercial-style approach can really work.
You generally don’t see in the private sector, even a company
like General Motors [Company, Inc. (GM)], go to a supplier of an automobile
part and tell them exactly how they should do their job of making
the part. They will give them very strong and clear standards for
what the part has to be able to do, what it has to look like, what
its strength or weight or other characteristics have to be, but they
won’t tell the part maker how to make the part. Unless nobody
knows how to make the part.
Now, if nobody knows how to make the part GM may tell some prospective
part makers, “Here’s what we want and here’s some
ideas for how to do it. Let’s see you guys bid against each
other to see who can do it best and do it for a reasonable price.”
But there isn’t the sort of presumption like in the government,
where the government thinks it’s their job to tell the private
company not just what to do, but how to do it. And not just once—up
front—but continuously throughout the life of the program.
Hopefully with the COTS program there’s been enough of a demonstration—as
well as by the way some other major programs like the EELV [Evolved
Expendable Launch Vehicle] program in the Air Force from 12 or 14
years ago—that the private sector really can do quite a lot
in the space field when given the opportunity. Even in human spaceflight,
even in systems that are going to touch the Space Station and safely
rendezvous with the Space Station, and therefore need to operate reliably
enough so that you don’t threaten the lives of the people on
the Space Station. Then of course later, vehicles that can actually
carry astronauts safely to and from the Space Station. Hopefully this
has shown that the private sector really can produce excellent results
in a different way at much less cost.
If I were to indulge my cynical side, I would say that not only do
commercial partnerships do a better job, or a more efficient job,
or a more affordable job than the traditional approach, I could argue
that the traditional approach really hasn’t worked at all inside
NASA on major human spaceflight programs for the last 10 or 20 years.
I mean, there’s been lots of attempts at NASA to do big, new
human spaceflight projects, and probably the singular success, if
I can call it that, has been that after about seven or eight years
a variant of Orion [Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle] is going to be flight-tested
And it’s going to be flight tested on a commercial launch vehicle,
the Delta IV Heavy, that was developed commercially by The Boeing
[Company] and is now operated by the United Launch Alliance. It was
developed on a fixed-price basis with an Other Transaction Authority
partnership between the Air Force and Boeing, for a total federal
government investment upfront of $500 billion, where Boeing put in
$3 billion to develop the launch vehicle. Delta IV Heavies are very
expensive to buy, but the fact is that it was developed fairly cheaply
and it did produce results, and they’ve all succeeded in their
mission goals. They regularly deliver multi-billion-dollar satellites
to orbit. And it’s going to deliver Orion into a high orbit
to test out Orion’s heat shield.
I guess my point is that hopefully this message that commercial partnerships
work for human spaceflight is starting to get across. There are a
lot of people that are resistant to it because the rice bowls that
people want to keep full don’t necessarily get full that way.
There’s always pain in transition, there’s always pain
in change, there’s always pain in adjustment to a new paradigm,
and this is one of those cases.
Do you believe that there will be an acceleration of involvement with
more public-private partnerships for space transportation, let’s
say in the next 15 years?
I do believe that. I’m going to be optimistic. I’m not
going to be optimistic in saying that the progress we’ve made
over the last 15 years will accelerate because it’s a good thing
to accelerate it and it’s a good thing to have more of it. That
is all true, and I would like that to happen. I would like it to accelerate
so that we have a lot more commercial space activity, and a lot more
leveraging of public dollars with private dollars. A lot more private
investment, a lot more innovation, a lot more competition, a lot more
lowering of prices and increasing of capability. More innovation,
and more dynamism in the marketplace.
Those are all good things that I believe in that we need to have,
but I’m going to be optimistic in a different way, and say that
the United States government will still have a human spaceflight program
in 15 years. We will not have an active human spaceflight program
in the government in 15 years if it does not embrace this new model,
because the old model is simply withering and dying. There’s
simply not enough money in the federal treasury at a high enough priority
to do everything that NASA and other people would like NASA to do,
in the same ways that NASA has always done things, and actually produce
I’m going to be optimistic and say that NASA and the human spaceflight
community will choose to adapt and to pursue this new way of doing
things more frequently, and therefore will succeed, and therefore
will grow again, and therefore will actually be flying astronauts
into space. As opposed to failing to adapt and, like the dinosaurs,
What about other markets? I know that part of the COTS program was
to help stimulate new markets for these companies that were their
partners. Do you see that also happening?
Well, the COTS program had multiple purposes. There were the three
formal goals of the program that were in the procurements that awarded
the Space Act Agreements, but there were really a bunch of expectations
and demands on the program from various constituencies and various
policymakers. The number one demand, that some people thought was
the priority, was let’s fly something as soon as possible that
can deliver cargo to the Space Station.
The company I worked for, Constellation Services International, took
an innovative but very fairly low-risk approach of using Russian technology
to satisfy the last mile, i.e., the safe transport of cargo from low-Earth
orbit to the Space Station. It would use existing proven launch vehicles,
in particular the Atlas V, for the delivery of a cargo container to
low-Earth orbit. The goal there was to show that it was possible to
deliver cargo to the Space Station in as little as two years from
the award of a demonstration Space Act Agreement.
NASA decided that it had these broader goals for the COTS program,
including the stimulation of new markets. The primary way they were
going to do that was to stimulate the development of new launch vehicles
that would lower the cost of access to space, and therefore both generate
competitive orders for satellite launches in the U.S. instead of in
Europe or Russia or the Ukraine, but also generate new applications
that would make sense doing in space if you lowered the cost of access.
NASA chose to go for that brass ring.
It took companies a total of six years from contract award to finally
deliver cargo to the Space Station, but there’s no question
that the transformative effect of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle, having
already won significant international geosynchronous communication
satellite launch orders—SpaceX is definitely changing the market.
It’s discontinuous and it’s disruptive, and it’s
a really great thing for the economy and it’s a really great
thing for the space program and for NASA.
I think that the creation of new markets is already starting to happen
in the case of what SpaceX is doing. I’m hoping that as Orbital
continues, and perhaps as the Commercial Crew Program enables another
company to enter the marketplace with a different spacecraft and probably
an existing launch vehicle, the Atlas V, you’ll have multiple
ways of getting people or goods to the Space Station. You’ll
see competition and you’ll really start to see a flowering of
new applications at the Space Station.
Some of those could be traditional, like biological and physical research,
commercial processes, crystal growth, medicine, and research into
combustion and physical processes. Other things may be assembling
satellites at the Space Station—launching components, assembling
them at the Space Station, and launching CubeSats, or small satellites,
out the side of the Space Station. One company has already demonstrated
the launch of CubeSats for the Space Station, called NanoRacks.
Exactly what it’s going to look like—that’s the
great thing about the private marketplace, that people are incentivised
to go out, come up with cool ideas, keep them secret, raise money,
develop it, and then sort of spring it on the world. We’ll see
over the next five years whether this increase in access to the Space
Station starts making the Space Station not only a scientific and
research success, which hopefully it will be, but also a commercial
success. It will be a hub of commercial activity. That’s why
Congress funded it for all these years, so it would be really good
for NASA’s credibility if it actually happens.
What’s been the most challenging aspect of your role as an advocate
over these last 15 years?
I guess I have two thoughts about that. One is that when you are proposing
new ways of doing things that dramatically change current circumstances,
that change the environment within which people do their jobs, you
can get some fairly spirited resistance to those changes. One of the
difficult things for me has been the fact that it can get very personal.
It can get fairly malicious, and even malevolent, in terms of how
aggressively people will fight to stop a new idea simply because it
threatens the current way of doing things.
I’m sure there were companies that raised horses and made saddles
and made buggies and other tools of the trade associated with horse-based
transportation that really hated Henry Ford [founder of the Ford Motor
Company], and really hated the other early entrepreneurs of the automobile
industry. But I’m not sure they engaged in the same level of
personal attack, and even government efforts to try to stop things
that I’ve witnessed over the last 30 years, and certainly over
the last 15 years. It’s important to keep reminding yourself
that you’re not just doing this for yourself.
There are less confrontational ways to make a living than trying to
open the space frontier to human civilization, because apparently
there are people who really don’t want that to happen. These
are people who are actually in charge of space organizations and space
agencies and space companies. They don’t want the disruptive
level of change that goes with opening up the space economy to all
comers. That’s been hard to reconcile with these people’s
insistence that they are the ones who are “pro space.”
Personally, of course the fact that CSI didn’t succeed in its
primary goals as a business was hard for me. It was hard for me that
NASA chose to take an effort that was primarily focused on simply
showing that the private sector could take cargo to and remove trash
from the International Space Station, and turned it into a launch
vehicle development program. I understand why they did it, but I think
it delayed the result of proving that you could deliver cargo. That
early demonstration that the private sector could do what only governments
had done up until then—it made it harder, for example, for companies
to convince people that they could deliver people to the Space Station
because we hadn’t succeeded at delivering cargo yet.
When President [Barack] Obama proposed his budget in early 2010 and
proposed to spend upwards of $5 to $6 billion over several years to
enable the develop of commercial crew capabilities, people were up
in arms. Partly because he was also canceling the current human spaceflight
project, Constellation, but also because, “Why would you put
so much money into something when they haven’t even done what
they were supposed to do starting back in the 2000s?”
It might have been a good idea for NASA to have done something lower
risk first, and then done something else more aggressive and then
done something else even more advanced, and brought in new launch
vehicles and new spacecraft as new generations of innovation. I can’t
tell you that my thinking about that isn’t partly biased by
the fact that I was part of a company that was pursuing a simpler,
lower-risk strategy. It’s taken a long time, but NASA’s
investments have more than paid off by showing that private companies
can develop new launch vehicles. They are affordable and they do seem
to be reliable, and they will dramatically bring launch revenue back
to the United States. That’s a great result for the country.
Do you think at some point in these last years there was a tipping
point that gave you hope that where we are now is where you wanted
to be? When there was a ray of hope, and you didn’t want to
stop working towards this venture?
Nine years ago today, SpaceShipOne flew to space for the first time.
Literally, nine years ago today. [Elbert L.] “Burt” Rutan’s
SpaceShipOne was carried to altitude, to roughly 50,000 feet, by the
White Knight One aircraft. It was dropped, its hybrid rocket motor
was ignited, and it burned to full duration and the spaceship flew
to over 60 miles high.
That was a feat equivalent to what Alan [B.] Shepard did in May of
1961, when our first Mercury flight took place on the Redstone rocket.
That was a suborbital flight. [Freedom 7] was actually a little longer,
a little faster, a little higher, but the point is, it was a suborbital
flight of a human being. The government spent a lot of money developing
that Mercury capability, and Mercury went on to take John [H.] Glenn
Burt Rutan spent, in 2004 dollars, about $21 to 24 million to develop
his capability. That capability demonstrated a potential way of doing
this that could make money for Richard [C.N.] Branson, and therefore
ignited a new industry. The industry already existed, but it really
heralded the industry because it showed people, “Oh, the private
sector could do things we didn’t think they could do.”
There have been a lot of moments like that. That’s one I picked
out because today is June the 21st, but there have been a lot of moments
like that where it’s not just a ray of hope, it’s a thunderclap
of change. You have to revel in those moments. All I had to do with
that flight was that I was arguing in Washington that they should
be allowed to do it, and that we needed to set up the right regulatory
regime for companies when they actually got into business. But when
that happened, I took tremendous comfort that it was happening.
The company I worked for, which is a competitor to Virgin Galactic
[LLC], XCOR Aerospace, is building their SpaceShipTwo-class vehicle
right now, to carry people on a regular basis to 65 or 70 miles, and
they will be flying it early next year. Then I will feel even better
because then it won’t be a fluke. It’ll be more than one
company doing it, it’ll be a competitive industry. And of course,
I’ll have the benefit of my company that I work in actually
having the accomplishment itself.
When new things are being birthed, you have to take some pride in
the community’s advances, and use that to spur yourself on your
own personal challenges to move forward. I’m sure this is true
in traditional aerospace, where a company that makes a Mars rover
of course is proud when their Mars rover lands on Mars successfully,
but the other company that wanted to build the Mars rover still is
happy that America’s on Mars.
I’m going to go back to some notes that I took when you first
started talking about your involvement overall. You mentioned working
to help draft legislation, and you also just mentioned helping set
up the regulatory regime for these commercial ventures. Could you
share some details about how that came to be, and working with the
FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] to do that?
Sure. In 2003, I had been a consultant for about three years, and
I was approached by friends at XCOR and by Dennis [A.] Tito, who was
the first space tourist to the ISS—who I had worked for after
his flight back in 2001—and by another company I’d done
some work for, Space Adventures [Ltd.]. They said, “We want
to try to reduce the regulatory risk that a new space vehicle would
face in entering the marketplace.”
Let me take a minute to explain what that means. In early 2003, no
one knew that SpaceShipOne existed. Well, obviously people at Scaled
Composites knew, and a few other people knew, but it was not publicly
known that this was being worked on. There was the Ansari X Prize
going on, and there were companies out there talking about pursuing
it, but there wasn’t any clearly-leading candidate. Companies
were trying to raise money, and people weren’t clear whether
or not it was going to happen. But there was also a risk facing companies
that were going to be operating these vehicles after the X Prize was
won, particularly because some of these vehicles had wings and some
of these vehicles took off and landed horizontally, they could be
regulated as airplanes rather than as spaceships.
In 1984, Congress passed the original Commercial Space Launch Act,
which authorized and directed the Secretary of Transportation to create
a licensing regime for commercial space launches in this country,
which would put all of the safety focus on protecting people who were
not involved in the activity itself. If you’re a rocket engineer
working on the rocket right there at the launch pad, it’s not
the Secretary of Transportation’s job to keep you from blowing
yourself up with your rocket. It’s the Secretary of Transportation’s
job to make sure that if the rocket blows up it doesn’t hurt
anyone who isn’t part of the process. If a rocket takes off
and goes off course, the government doesn’t want it to land
on someone’s house or someone’s school or someone’s
office building. They weren’t involved, they weren’t part
of it, they didn’t choose to participate in a risky activity,
so they should be protected.
Now, flash forward two decades to 2003, and you’re now talking
about vehicles that are going to fly and carry people in them. These
will not be people who have an expectation of safety like when they
get on Southwest Airlines [Company]. These are people who understand
that they are doing something risky, but they would like to have the
experience of flying through space.
Because some of these vehicles have wings and some of them take off
and land horizontally, and they kind of look like airplanes, there’s
the question, “Well, could these things be regulated like airplanes?”
Unlike the launch regime, which is to protect uninvolved persons but
let people take risks flying rockets or people into space, aviation
is a common carrier industry. By that I mean it is an industry that
holds itself out to the public and offers a transportation service
to everyone. Customers are not expected to be experts in how the service
is carried out.
When you buy a cell phone, you’re not expected to know how the
cell towers operate or the switching system operates, so the Federal
Communications Commission regulates Verizon [Wireless] and AT&T
[Inc.] and other companies and makes sure that how they sell to you
is appropriate. In the aviation industry, the FAA strongly regulates
how United Airlines operates its [Boeing] 737s [aircraft], how Southwest
Airlines operates its 737s, and how Delta [Air Lines, Inc.] operates
its 737s and Airbus [SA aircraft]. Exactly how they have to keep them
maintained, exactly how many staff they have to have aboard the plane,
and exactly the processes they have to go through in instructing everyone
who boards the plane on how to be safe during the flight, etc.
That regulatory regime for aviation was built up over 100 years of
powered flight! The Wright brothers [Orville and Wilbur Wright] flew
in 1903. Here we were in 2003, and we had a huge history, a century
of aviation in this country. We’d had regulation of airplane
safety since the mid-1920s, and the FAA itself has existed since 1958.
The question was, if it’s a launch vehicle, then it will be
lightly regulated, primarily to protect uninvolved persons. But if
it’s an airplane, it’s going to face the same burden of
regulation as United Airlines and Boeing. We were very clear which
side of that dividing line we wanted to be on. We wanted to be on
the space side, not on the airplane side, but that outcome was not
clear in 2003.
What we went about doing was asking the Congress to enact legislation
which would define in the law what a suborbital rocket was—because
a suborbital rocket had never been defined in law or in regulation—and
to create an affirmative, positive regime that says that people could
fly at their own risk. The government isn’t certifying the launch
vehicles to be safe to fly on. Initially we wanted the bill to be
silent on the issue of the safety of the spaceflight participants,
that is, the people who fly on these vehicles and pay to fly.
What we ended up with was a limitation on how the FAA could regulate
for safety, and any regulating for safety was entirely based on a
need to promote the health of the industry, so there was no separate
mandate to regulate for passenger safety on these space vehicles.
And it took a year and two-thirds, from April or May of 2003 to the
very last moment of that Congress to create, in law, an affirmative
regime to promote and allow commercial human spaceflight. The Commercial
Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004 was actually the very last piece
of business that the Senate passed. That sets you up with a picture
of what happened.
Quite an accomplishment, yes. Thank you for that background because
it gives a little more context to just how long it takes to get some
things done, so we appreciate that. What about your thoughts about
the contributions you had setting up the actual parameters of the
public-private partnerships? Did you give some guidance on what should
Sure. I mean, as a congressional staff member back in the ’90s,
long before CSI was set up, I was advocating for privatization of
transportation to and from the Space Station. I had meetings with
people at OMB and meetings with people at NASA, and we secured legislation
to try to press them to do that. I think as a result of, in part,
my encouragement, and encouragement coming from the Hill from the
majority Republican side, people who were working in OMB at the time
said, “Let’s go try to create a program by which NASA
will actually start to buy services.” That idea did not come
from NASA. It is very hard to get NASA or any large institution to
do something it didn’t think of doing. The Alternate Access
to Station program, which was what OMB created in the budget that
came out in February of 2000, was precisely the kind of market opportunity
that I had wanted as a legislator.
Once I left Congress and joined CSI, it was precisely the sort of
market opportunity that we were interested in because it would help
stimulate on-orbit services, and we could then also provide services
for the private sector as well. We were interested in satellite servicing,
using a human spaceflight vehicle based at the ISS, basically a derivative
of the [Russian Federal Space Agency] Soyuz [spacecraft], that would
serve as a space tug that could go service satellites that were being
launched into orbits near the ISS.
When I say “near,” I don’t mean physically near
the ISS itself, I mean in inclinations and altitudes that were within
reach, in terms of orbital mechanics, from the ISS. The ISS is at
51.6 degrees. Because a lot of communication satellite constellations
were planned to be launched to 53 degrees or 55 degrees, back in 2000,
on Russian launch vehicles from Kazakhstan, it turned out that ISS
was a good orbit to be at with the human spaceflight vehicle to do
Our idea was kind of interesting. The idea was to say, “NASA
has already demonstrated that what works in terms of satellite servicing
is humans.” The problem is it’s really expensive to launch
the Shuttle to rescue a satellite. What if you could use people that
are already in space and just basically rent them for a period of
time to do satellite servicing? That’s where CSI came from.
That’s why it was called Constellation Services International,
because the idea was to service satellite constellations from ISS.
Now, the simpler version of what we were talking about was to simply
use an existing spacecraft, the [Russian Federal Space Agency] Progress,
as a tug, to simply bring cargo containers to and from ISS itself.
That way you could launch a cargo container on any launch vehicle,
and then the Progress would come get the cargo container and take
it back to ISS, just as a tugboat brings a large container ship into
port. The large container ship is not designed or built to negotiate
its way into a harbor and all the way to the dock where it gets unloaded.
They have tugboats for that. That last mile is done differently than
the efficiency of moving all those containers across the ocean, and
that was exactly what we were proposing to do at ISS.
It was a very cool idea, and I, having helped—not the parameters,
and didn’t set up the program when I was in Congress, but arguing
for the idea and working with OMB in 2000, 2001, 2002. We tried to
encourage NASA to actually do it. They did some of it, they did some
studies, but they weren’t really going to actually fund demonstrations
or flights. It wasn’t until Mike Griffin came in, who testified
to the Congress, in part with my instigation, “Why can’t
we do this? Why can’t we do Alternate Access? Why can’t
we take that piece away from the Shuttle, and therefore make it easier
to do whatever the Shuttle has left to do? Let’s go ahead and
take the low-hanging fruit.”
When Mike came in he said, “Listen, we’re not going to
do it this way that NASA was thinking about doing it.” It was
taking forever for them to get their act together. Griffin said, “We’re
going to go do this COTS program.” I was working for other companies
at the time as well, and I was encouraging them to use Space Act Agreements
for demonstrating crew capabilities, and they wrapped it all up into
one program. Which turned out to not be great for CSI, but it was
good for other companies. They ended up using Space Act Agreements,
and proving that Space Act Agreements are a great way to manage innovative
programs, because when Rocketplane Kistler failed to do what it was
promised to do, NASA cut them off. They used the remaining money and
gave an award to Orbital.
There were many aspects of COTS. It was competitive, you used Space
Act Agreements, it was pay for milestones instead of paying for cost
and for labor hours, which is what traditional contracts are. All
of that has worked, all of that has demonstrated success. I don’t
like, as I said before, everything about how NASA structured the program
or all of NASA’s selections, but we are where we are and the
world moves on. There are still people who don’t view COTS as
a great success, but I think it was, and I think it validated a whole
bunch of different ideas.
I don’t relate to it as my victory or my accomplishment, but
I’m glad to have been part of pushing this idea. I have on my
credenza here a SpaceX COTS patch that was flown with Dragon on that
first flight to the Space Station [C2+ demonstration mission]. The
reason I have something like that instead of a vanity wall with autographed
pictures of politicians is because that was the first time a private
company delivered something to a Space Station with a privately-developed
vehicle. That’s what COTS made possible. It’s a big deal.
We all watched 2001 [A Space Odyssey], and watched a Pan American
[World Airways] shuttle deliver Heywood [R.] Floyd to this big space
station in the sky. We just automatically assumed that of course the
private sector would handle regular [space] transportation, just like
it did on the Earth. Somehow, NASA didn’t evolve that way and
space didn’t evolve that way, and it took active effort—a
lot of active effort—over decades, by a lot of people, to force
the system to actually embrace such a fairly basic concept! Yes, the
government doesn’t have to operate its own delivery van. It
sounds silly when you say that, but that’s what we literally
had to fight for decades to make happen.
Thank you. You’ve covered so much. Are there any other thoughts
that you’d like to add before we close? Or anything else that
you’d like to mention? Maybe even possibly what you feel are
the next steps forward?
I think commercial crew is the next step. There is an argument that
some people make, and I understand the argument, that we should have
the commercial sector handle more of the responsibilities in low-Earth
orbit while NASA focuses beyond Earth orbit. I definitely agree that
NASA should focus on activities beyond Earth orbit. I still think
NASA has a role in low-Earth orbit at the Space Station, but I also
think that the private sector can make a huge contribution beyond
Earth orbit. In other words, I don’t want to see some sort of
celestial zoning where low-Earth orbit is a business district, but
beyond Earth orbit is a strictly government district.
The fact is, we will never have enough money in the NASA budget to
replicate the Apollo model, ever. People who want to replicate the
Apollo model keep forgetting that Apollo ended. It collapsed! It ran
out of steam in four years. We abandoned the Moon. People who today
believe that we have to have a heavy-lift launch vehicle using the
capabilities that NASA has had in its hand—i.e., Space Shuttle
main engines and Space Shuttle solid rocket boosters and big tanks
and cores made at [NASA] Michoud [Assembly Facility, New Orleans,
Louisiana], where the external tank was made because that’s
what we did for Apollo—are arguing for form over substance.
They are trying to replicate the appearance of Apollo, which if we
had all the money in the world and Congress supported NASA sufficiently
to let them do that, they could do. For a little while. But we don’t
have that money, Congress isn’t providing that much support,
and therefore it’s not going to work. It’s going to be
like Constellation, except that we’re starting from an even
lower base than 2005 and we’re facing the certainty of more
cuts, instead of Constellation’s false hope of huge increases.
Doing “Constellation Lite” is going to fail, and we have
to adopt an approach for beyond Earth orbit that shares more of the
responsibility with the private sector, that shares more of the responsibility
with the private companies that are launching things for the government—for
other parts of the government, like the Defense Department, and for
NASA’s science programs. This is heresy, but NASA isn’t
going to be able to have its own launch vehicle that is totally its
launch vehicle that no one else has, that NASA is comfortable with
because NASA designed it from scratch and NASA totally controls it.
One of my concerns for the Johnson Space Center is, what happens if
SLS [Space Launch System] doesn’t fly? What are the lessons
that we should be learning from COTS toward developing launch capabilities
that we need to send humans to the Moon and eventually to asteroids,
and the moons and surface of Mars?
What it turns out we need isn’t so much a big launch vehicle
as a really efficient mass-produced upper stage that could serve in
multiple roles, like a tanker or a depot. Maybe that could be done
as a COTS-style partnership, and then you could buy first stages from
ULA [United Launch Alliance] or SpaceX. Whoever can launch that efficient
upper stage that a government-private partnership provides, and then
the government adds special things onto it to turn it into a planetary
lander or turn it into a propellant depot, or turn it into other things.
Just as when the Air Force wants to move people or cargo, they don’t
just use [Boeing] C-17s [Globemaster III aircraft]. Mostly they use
American Airlines or Delta, and they fly people and they fly cargo
using Civil Reserve Air Fleet contracts. Just like COTS and CRS [Commercial
Resupply Services] are doing for the Space Station. Maybe we should
be doing that even for transportation to low-Earth orbit in support
of exploration beyond Earth orbit.
As long as we try to replicate the form of Apollo and preserve the
same old way of doing things, I’m afraid that SLS will never
fly and the Johnson Space Center—whose heart and soul is the
operations of running spaceflight missions, and the engineering capability
to solve the problems that come up when you’re doing spaceflight—won’t
have anything to do.
Johnson’s engineering directorate is really amazing. They not
only help do early initial design, but they’re the folks who
come up with a solution to a problem so we can launch on time, or
get the astronauts home alive, or what have you. All of that intellectual
muscle, without real spaceflight missions to practice on, will atrophy.
That would a bigger crime than throwing away the Saturn V.
So if some politicians and bureaucrats insist that we keep trying
the old way and it keeps failing, hopefully someone like me will be
around to will say, “Look at this new way of doing things. Maybe
we should try that.” I will probably spend the rest of my career
trying to convince people that that’s what they should do.
I was just going to add, it sounds like you’re going to be busy
for the next 15 to 30 years as well.
Hopefully I won’t be working another 30 years, but I’ll
probably never stop. I’ll probably never stop fighting to actually
try to apply the genius of America to spaceflight.
It doesn’t sound like it. It’s a passion of yours, and
we sure appreciate you sharing the information with us this morning.
to JSC Oral History Website