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Guest Blogger: Why Not Privatize?

PhilipJuneBy Philip G. June, Industry Blogger

 BSME; Georgia Institute of Technology. Mr. June is an industry blogger with 5 years experience in the aerospace industry, including 2 years as an engineer at NASA Johnson Space Center. He can be contacted at Philip.June@gmail.com.

Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship Two (SS2) is scheduled to rollout of the Scaled Composite facility in Mojave, California this December. Shortly after rollout, SS2 will make Glide flights followed by powered flights to space later in 2010. The company plans to begin providing commercial services in 2011. Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn feels that “[The company] has got the basis for a really good business in three areas – payloads, science in space and space tourism” (from Aviation Week – September 4, 2009). In a tough economic climate, Virgin Galactic boasts $60 million in total income from 300 suborbital investors. The company’s capital was recently boosted by a $280 million investment from Aabar, an investment group based in Abu Dhabi. $100 million of the investment will be used to develop a satellite launch solution for NASA’s request for proposals for a suborbital science program.   

Even with many promising private space upstarts like Virgin Galactic rapidly developing, NASA appears hesitant to broaden its perspective. Increasing privatization efforts will provide additional resources that may significantly ease NASA’s financial burdens. By sharing costs and operational objectives with private companies – at least in cargo and payload delivery services – NASA could be free to commit more of its limited budget to The Constellation Program and other long-range missions. Private companies have the freedom to develop products quickly, as evidenced by Virgin Galactic’s aggressive SS2 program. Some may say that rapid development of these types of high-cost, high risk technologies is foolish. But with government oversight, private companies can be held to meeting NASA’s core objectives – mitigating risks, assuring operational safety, and insuring mission success. Government action should not be wholly aligned with the private sector but can regulate in a manner that does not preclude investment. A thoughtful course of action could involve strategic capabilities dictated by NASA but with key input from private entities in certain areas.

Privatization is not without its legal obstacles. Increased activity in space will almost certainly lead to further proliferation of space debris, an oft addressed concern of many space law entities. Additionally, how might NASA address new technology agreements with private companies? Recent Space Act Agreements for the new Commercial Crew Development activity may be the template for future agreements. But how would such Acts extend to international entities? What role should international space law play in privatization?

Although NASA and private space companies have difficult legal obstacles ahead, they should push forward towards privatization. NASA has laid a strong foundation for U.S. leadership in space. But constant budget reductions and difficult mission objectives clearly demonstrates NASA’s need for the services of private companies like Virgin Galactic. Space is legally defined as part of the “common heritage of man”. With that idea in mind, the future of human presence in space may depend on cooperation between government and private entities.