A Status Quo in Space?

In the wake of President Barack Obama’s re-election, analysts in the space community seem to have reached the unsurprising consensus that the result will be a maintenance of the status quo regarding NASA and the nation’s space policy.  With the U.S. House and Senate remaining divided between Republicans and Democrats respectively, the threat of sequestration still looms, but it seems almost certain that the one policy which every one seems to agree on, kicking the can a little further down the road, will prevail for the time being.

What are the implications?  Innerspace.net is presented from a viewpoint which favors the development of systems, technologies, companies, organizations and programs which hold meaningful potential in fundamentally reducing the cost of reaching and operating in space. It also takes a dim view of those elements, which for whatever reason, seek to perpetuate or maintain the current transportation paradigm, offering no credible path to progress in lowering costs.

In the Mirror Mirror world of current space policy, which generally finds a Democratic administration supportive of private sector solutions through COTS, CRS and Commercial Crew, and key Republicans occasionally displaying outright hostility to the same while remaining closely allied with traditional, high cost providers, the ultimate result may be that a policy status quo actually enables continued programmatic progress.

And make no mistake, we have for the first time seen significant progress in lowering the costs of orbital launch and operations in the form of the SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon system. One need look no further than the barely restrained panic, and outbreak of in-fighting,  within  Europe’s space agency over the next course of action for Arianespace in countering a price revolution for which it has no effective strategy if SpaceX successfully introduces the enhanced Falcon 9 V1.1 next year.

For the moment, progress is tenuous, limited to one company, and could easily suffer a painful setback. Nevertheless,  other companies are following suit, and a period of relative policy stability over the next several years could well provide the time required for SpaceX, Blue Origin, XCOR, Virgin Galactic and Stratolaunch to fundamentally change the launch industry for good.

We obviously will never know for certain what a Romney space policy would have looked like, but to the extent if could have offered an increased likelihood of an  enforced down-select in Commercial Crew, and a return to business as usual for NASA,  nascent commercial space transportation efforts might have felt a chilling effect.

As for broader implications beyond NewSpace companies, the resumption of a status quo suggests ongoing development of the Space Launch System, even though flat budgets (at best) means there will be insufficient funding to do very much with it. The prospects are even worse for planetary science, which looks to be facing an extended period of reduced budgets for new starts as the James Webb Space Telescope continues to cannibalize everything in sight.

All in all, it is a mixed bag, but as the old saying goes; a rising tide lifts all boats, and the space corollary is that falling launch prices would lift a lot more payloads. To the extent we remain on that path,  there is reason for optimism.

Out on the horizon however, is the steadily building tsunami of national debt, for which  NASA programs are most certainly in the projected impact zone.

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