Experts discuss the latest innovations in space technology, the prospects for a human mission to Mars, and the importance of sustaining American leadership in space exploration.
The Emerging Technology series explores the science behind innovative new technologies and the effects they will have on U.S. foreign policy, international relations, and the global economy.
BRENNER: All right, welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting. My name is Lee Brenner. I’m a business development lead on the Technology and Civic Engagement Team over at Microsoft. I’m a term member of the Council as well—but really excited to be here to talk about emerging technology, “The Future of Space.”
We have three great panelists: Lori Garver, who is the general manger of the Air Line Pilots Association. She’s also the former deputy administrator of NASA; John Logsdon, a professor emeritus of political science and international affairs from the—at the Elliott School of International Affairs, and a longtime space policy person in Washington, D.C. and is part of the United States space policy; and Charles Miller, president of NexGen Space, LLC.
So I think we’re going to start—Charles is actually going to give an overview of what we’re really going to talk about to give a base for our conversation. Then I’m going to ask each of the panelists to give a little bit of an overview. Then we’re going to jump into questions—a really, hopefully, in-depth discussion. And then we’ll open up the questions to you. So hopefully you will have many of those questions as well.
MILLER: Thanks, Lee.
So I’ve got a few minutes. They asked me to set the context of the conversation for “The Future of Space.” There is a few general arcs that overlie most key issues in space today, and some current situational issues.
One of the first arcs is really called the arc of Apollo. Apollo was this amazing success and we’ve been trying to repeat Apollo since then and had many attempts to do so since Apollo—nearly approaching 50 years now. There has been many attempts to repeat it. First was Bush 41 on the 20th anniversary and it didn’t work. It was unaffordable. Again—actually, the first one—that was the second one. The first one was following Apollo. Dr. Logsdon wrote a book on it. After Apollo, in the Nixon administration they tried to get in an attempt to go to Mars. It was considered to be unaffordable. Then the second one with Bush 41, considered to be unaffordable.
And the third attempt was the Vision for Space Exploration in Bush 43’s administration. And they wanted it to be affordable. They set the guidance to do it within the existing budget, but NASA stood up a plan called Constellation that was ultimately unaffordable. Lori here, as deputy administration of NASA, was part of the leadership and this independent review that looked at it again, three in a row. It was unaffordable so they cancelled Constellation and set up some of the situation where we are today. They tried to do a new innovation with commercial and technology to achieve our national goals in space at a much lower price. That was resisted.
So one of the key themes today is the dynamics between the old traditional approach to space with traditional government-centric model. And you call that kind of maybe the status quo. Some say “old space.” And then there’s another dynamic, innovative, commercial approach—some call it “new space”—that wants to propose new space.
Some of the fundamentals going on is the International Space Station was justified as a national geopolitical—it was saved. It was on the verge of being cancelled and we broughtRussiain. So national geopolitical objectives play a very important role in space, which is why—part of the reason we’re having this event here. And it saved the space station. It just satisfied its—had its 15th-year anniversary of Humans in Space at the International Space Station. I think 15 nations are there. It also was a key part of Apollo. It was the geopolitical justification. It was the real reason—and one of Dr. Logsdon’s books goes into great detail that Kennedy created the Apollo program. It was a masterful exercise of soft power.
Some of the other thrusts going on is we’re still today—we have about $3 billion a year; NASA’s focus on a Mars program. They were recently criticized on this Mars program. They still don’t have a program and strategy. They don’t have a budget or schedule to show when they’re getting to Mars or how much it’s going to cost. And meanwhile, commercial space keeps on going along. You have companies like SpaceX with Elon Musk. You have, I mean, Paul Allen investing in it. And you have Jeff Bezos from Amazon.com with a company called Blue Origin, and a lot of other companies, including some of your members of the Council of Foreign Relations, like Laetitia Garriott is the president of a company called Escape Dynamics. There’s a lot of innovation in that area. And that kind of sets the stage for where we are today.
What I’m doing in this—just a short one minute—I recently—NextGen Space completed a study for NASA, funded by NASA, of if—could we leverage commercial space partnerships to send humans to deep space? And we specifically looked at the Moon. And the answer was—and we had a bunch of former retired NASA engineers—is we could return humans to the Moon using commercial partnerships by the end of the second term of the next president, and do it within NASA’s existing budget, and looked at things like an international lunar authority. And there’s, you know, significant geopolitical benefits to that as well, but that’s what NexGen Space is working on.
BRENNER: Right. Thank you, Charles, very much.
Lori, give us a little bit of background. Obviously we know you’ve worked at NASA. And I’ll set—I’ll set this up for your kind of introductory, but is NASA doing what it needs to do to support emerging technologies in the space—in the space space?
GARVER: So, my background in political science and economics led me to really focus on far space policy, the purpose and the “why” we are exploring it. Of course, as Charles said, we are focused here today on the human spaceflight part of NASA, and NASA, of course, is just the government part of space activity. So there’s a number of other things that are driven, I think, more by the purposes that drive large expenditures in other areas. And Neil Tyson gives a great talk about fear, greed, and glory. And to me, being very supportive of democracy and capitalism, we have the ability with space, I think, to reinforce both.
And I did try to focus NASA more on doing that. Investment and technology is a big part of that because we know our government is here really as somewhat of a safety net and to buy down the risk, technical risk as well as market risk. And I believe a sustainable, long-term space exploration strategy does that by lowering the costs to entry, the barriers to entry, and utilizing all the talents of the nation for our benefits, whether those be economic, the greed part; fear, the national security part; or the glory part, which are a lot of the social benefits that come out of that investment.
So I think we could do better, but NASA is an $18 billion agency doing a lot of amazing things for the nation and the world. And I think there, frankly, is a lot of political support for that.
BRENNER: And, John, you’ve been paying attention to this since, really, the beginning of the space program, and been involved. Based on your observations over that time, is the space program where it is today—whether it’s the government space program or the broader space program—set up to be successful for whatever its goals are, or does there need to be a dramatic shift in the way people are thinking about it?
LOGSDON: Dramatic, no, but I think—as you say, I’ve been looking at this for 50-plus years—we’re closer to being able to send people to Mars today than we ever have been. It doesn’t mean we’re close, but the trajectory is in that direction, and so return to deep space. I think we should stop at the Moon on the way out—it’s just the offshore island—but we’re building systems that could take us there.
The only problem, as Lori suggested, is that the attempt to inject new technology into those systems hasn’t worked. So we’re building systems based on ’70s technologies. Space shuttle main engine in particular is going to power the big new rocket, solid rocket boosters like were used on the shuttle.
And we still haven’t adjusted our ambitions to the amount of resources the political system and the public seem willing to give to the space program, about a half of 1 percent of the federal budget. So the expectations created by early success really cast a shadow over what we are doing, which is not bad at all.
BRENNER: On that point—and you talked about the idea of being—that there is these two space programs. There’s the commercial and government, but the commercial side, what you’re working on as well, is that that’s where the innovation is, right? That’s where people are putting—they’re building new technologies. What is stopping—and this is really for the entire panel—what is stopping the government from saying, all right, let’s take the rocket that was just built last year, opposed to the technology from the ’70s, and use that instead?
LOGSDON: What rocket built last year? (Laughs.)
BRENNER: Well, for—as an example, if there were a rocket.
GARVER: Commercial rocket.
BRENNER: A commercial rocket.
GARVER: Well, there are. There are. You could use—
LOGSDON: SpaceX is—
BRENNER: SpaceX from the private, right.
GARVER: You could use—
LOGSDON: —for a modern system.
GARVER: I mean, it’s the tale of government overall. It is a bureaucracy. And NASA came out of the direction, as Charles said, of beating the Russians with Apollo, and sort of looking for a purpose ever since. And it becomes self-sustaining—self-sustainment as purpose. And so you have lots of people—I grew up with Apollo. I want to build the biggest rocket. So my question would be, who said the public had to pay for you to do that when there are other ways to do it that would be more efficient?
We have, because it is public’s money, a way to get this funded through Congress. They have jobs in their district and it has become largely a jobs program. We built an infrastructure in Apollo that we’re trying to keep because that is in particular districts. So it is one of the reasons I was focused on expanding that commercial effort is because then you are motivated in ways that allow you to make more advancements because you’re not held back by the political system.
LOGSDON: And lately, you ask, what’s holding us back? One thing that’s holding us back is the U.S. Congress, kind of full stop.
BRENNER: That’s surprising. (Laughter.)
GARVER: NASA too, though. Internal NASA pretty much convinced Congress that we should be doing—
LOGSDON: Right. Well, but the attempt that Lori and her associates made in 2010 to follow a new strategy was strongly resisted by the Hill and pushed back—
MILLER: And supported by parts of the agency—
LOGSDON: And supported by parts of the agency.
MILLER: —and the big companies.
LOGSDON: Right. So there is a space industrial congressional, bureaucratic—
LOGSDON: —I mean, classic triangle that still has a lot of power over the civil program, where, as you say, off on the side people saying, hey, there’s money to be made in space.
LOGSDON: And that money can be made by injecting innovative technology in navigation and Earth observation and communication. They’re on an almost separate trajectory.
The world we live in, you’re being watched 24/7, tracked.
LOGSDON: It’s all on your smartphone. There’s a GPS receiver in your smartphone. I mean, space is only a place to do a variety of things, to start out with.
GARVER: Well, and it’s so ironic because, of course, Eisenhower warned us of the industrial triangle and that we have been held back by it. In addition, NASA was the very symbol of capitalist ideals, as we went to the Moon and beat the Russians, and now what we’re working with is more of a socialist part of plan for space exploration, which is just anathema to what this country should be doing.
MILLER: So, building off what Lori just said, we have a clear, stark choice that most people don’t understand, but it’s really stark. You can either control where the jobs are, OK, and make sure they’re in your district, which many politicians who are in control of the purse strings of NASA, you know, do, or you can let go of control. There’s going to be the same amount of jobs but there’s going to be a lot more dynamic innovation and we’re going to achieve our goals in space, our national goals of putting humans into the Solar System.
And the first one, we’re just not going to get there because the only way to do it by controlling where the jobs are, you need to have 5 (billion dollars) to $10 billion more a year for NASA’s budget. And they tried that three times, trying to get that huge NASA budget increase, and it isn’t going to happen. And so three times in a row we failed, and so there’s still people grasping on that they can have that central plan controlled approach controlling all the strings.
BRENNER: Well, is that a—is that simply a communications problem, getting the public to be aware of that so that if the members of Congress are holding it back, or is it simply those members—
GARVER: I think we should just use the systems we used for every other aspect of society, which is allow the private sector—don’t compete with them; incentivize them by driving technologies that will be necessary for us as we explore further.
This is not a new concept. In the late ’80s, when I was at the National Space Society, a board meeting where a NASA rep was talking about what they’re doing in the space shuttle, and its importance. And she was using the analogy of the canals versus when the railway came. And I’ll never forget Marvin Minsky, who was on our board, said, yes, this is a very important analogy, and obviously if you allowed the railroads to go we would get to the West Coast faster than if you build canals. But you, my dear, are supporting the canals.
But NASA sees themselves as being cutting edge when that’s not really where it is these days. And for a long time we didn’t have outside investors willing to take on the human explorational part. NASA has done a terrific job with utilizing commercial and the military, utilizing commercial resources—could always do more, but things like comms positioning—
GARVER: —and a lot of data that comes for our sciences now will be more and more delivered by the private sector, companies like Planet Labs, who are able to do this for pennies on a dollar of what Landsat, which NASA is still trying to get a billion (dollars) to $2 billion a year to fund for a lot less resolution of data. It will come. It has come in other areas. And human spaceflight, with the advent of a commercial crew program, is, I think, next.
BRENNER: What’s interesting to me within especially the private investment space is obviously a lot of the companies you mention are run by just very wealthy people who have—just might have an interest in it, but are there companies that are doing—and I guess one of their goals—that are doing things commercially where it’s actually—it’s just going to be a good company versus just—
MILLER: Well, there’s just—there is but there’s—
MILLER: Yeah, there is companies—
GARVER: There are.
MILLER: —putting strategic investments in. There is the philanthro-capitalists, the people who have made a lot of money elsewhere and want to put it in space to make a difference and make a little money, but there’s also venture capital funds. Lori mentioned Planet Labs. They raised on the order of about $180 million from venture capitalists. There’s a bunch of innovation going on and private investors looking at this sector as a new place to invest and make money.
GARVER: Sierra Nevada is another one.
LOGSDON: People—I mean, I know Planet Lab is basically three scruffy guys from Silicon Valley.
GARVER: Come on.
LOGSDON: It’s gotten bigger, right—(laugher)—but that’s how it started. And they were able to go out, because they had a good idea—
LOGSDON: —and raise the money.
MILLER: There’s a lot—there’s many dozens of companies just below the radar raising real money, building real hardware, flying real hardware, and that’s the future. That’s actually fundamentally American. We’re the land of free enterprise. We can open space using a partnership between the best of government and the best of private industry. And that study I mentioned, we can put a permanent base on the Moon to industrialize, to mine the Moon for propellant to open up the Solar System. And we can do it within NASA’s existing budget, but it would just require we change how we do space.
And NASA’s already proved we can do this. We’ve done it with space station cargo delivery and we’re doing it with crew transportation to space station. And that is—there is bipartisan agreement on this. This is a program that was created—the commercial crew cargo program was created in the Bush 43 administration, and it was doubled down by President Obama. And actually, it was—most people forget, Newt Gingrich publicly praised President Obama when he did that.
So there is bipartisan agreement on it, and it’s really the—it’s not about partisan. It’s a battle between the dynamicists versus the status quo.
GARVER: It’s parochial, not partisan—
GARVER: —I like to say. And it isn’t an either/or with government and commercial. They work together. They have. The private sector has built everything that NASA has developed. They really don’t build a lot of their own but just looking to play a role that is more of an incentive for our industry to recognize we are them; we are together. It’s not either/or. It was difficult at the time that Elon announced he was building a larger rocket, and the NASA people would say, come on, Lori, you’ve got to talk to Elon because we got out of the low-Earth orbit rocket, we’re giving him that, but we—you’ve got to get him out of the long-term deep space, because that’s ours.
I said, ah, fundamentally you just don’t understand the paradigm that is we’re not in a race—in a lane in a swimming pool that everybody is racing against each other with our own industry. We’re in maybe a cycling race where we should be running point in the government with others drafting behind us, and if someone comes alongside because they can pass us because they found a better way, we don’t get out our tire pump and stick them in the spokes. You know, we take the next hill that will help them go even farther.
LOGSDON: Let me defend NASA a little bit in a couple of dimensions. First of all, when you’re talking about humans going into space with government sponsorship, it has to be conservative. You can’t risk human life.
GARVER: That’s another great point.
LOGSDON: I mean, you know, Virgin Galactic can have a problem, as they did on SpaceShipTwo, with a design flaw, and they keep going. If there were another shuttle-like accident in human spaceflight, very—
GARVER: So that’s another thing that holds us back. Now I am in the aviation world working with the pilots. And you look at how the development of aviation occurred, and you had, early on, the government-sponsored project being—
GARVER: Well, the first project being for flight of Langley. They were government-backed. And he drilled it into the Potomac.
GARVER: The Wright Brothers, no government money, in fact couldn’t convince the government to buy even after they flew their airplanes until they went to France, and finally that was adopted.
So the innovations were made by the private sector and accidents happened often. And people got back up and got on the planes. Had those been government-developed, that might have been—
LOGSDON: That might have been a different outcome.
MILLER: Right. But building on that, after the Wright Brothers we had this great partnership with the NACA, the predecessor of NASA—
MILLER: —and private industry, and lots of people died. And we have the world’s leading aviation industry in part because we figured out how to mix the brilliant genius of American entrepreneurs like Bill Boeing and Glenn Martin with the leadership and the research and the advanced technologies that NACA developed and melded together. We had lost world leadership and we surpassed and regained world leadership because of that partnership. And that’s what we can do in human spaceflight. And, you know, people are still at risk in aviation or in space. There’s a way of doing it.
LOGSDON: Well, you say—
GARVER: Yeah, Boeing took a big risk on the yet, but it was theirs. It wasn’t the government’s.
LOGSDON: Right. Yeah. You say “partnership.” That will require NASA. I mean, I get asked—
LOGSDON: —do we need NASA?
LOGSDON: And the answer is we need a NASA. We need a government organization to take the risks that the private sector—
LOGSDON: —won’t take.
GARVER: And let’s just—
LOGSDON: And there’s a lot of good people and capabilities there too.
GARVER: And let’s just say there’s another geopolitical purpose akin to Apollo that the nation’s leadership, the elected leadership, decides to do. That should be government-led. Of course they should do it in partnership in the most efficient way with the private sector they can, but they would lead, for this country, that effort, whether that is a lunar return, a mission to Mars, current plans for an asteroid. That is entirely appropriate. But we don’t just do it to do it or because someone grew up wanting to do it.
GARVER: We do it for a geopolitical purpose.
BRENNER: Well, in that sense, how is—how is the space program—how is it or can it be linked to foreign policy? I mean, should we be doing it alone? Should all these efforts be joint?
LOGSDON: Well, first of all, we can’t do it alone. And there is capability all over the world. I mean, India sent a mission to Mars. The United Arab Emirates are getting ready to do the same and forming a space agency. China has become the third country to be able to send people in space. They should be involved in the space station at some point not very distant from now.
GARVER: Well, we could be a carrot or a stick. And we’ve been a carrot on the space station. We have brought the Russians in. I was at NASA at that time. In the Clinton era we probably wouldn’t have had the space station continue without restructuring it to include the Russians. We have been the stick with Apollo, with Apollo-Soyuz. We were planning to do more joint missions, and when they went into Afghanistan we stopped doing that.
So with China right now the Hill has said we cannot cooperate, coordinate our space activities with them, so we are a public policy tool in the negative. But I think most people in space would like it to again be a carrot and hold it out there as a way we could work together peacefully.
LOGSDON: Well, because—I mean, in Apollo we led through achievement. I mean, it was sending a message of U.S. power—
LOGSDON: —and U.S. leadership. In today’s world you’d lead through partnerships. You are the leading partner. You know, I was a supporter of President Obama both in ’08 and ’12. I’m disappointed that he has not gone out, as President Reagan did in 1984, and at the presidential level say, let’s work together for space exploration. I think that’s—you know, starting from the top down there’s a lot of bottoms-up conversations about cooperation, what it would take, but we need top-down leadership—
LOGSDON: —in order to make that happen.
MILLER: Let me—
GARVER: Well, to support that—sorry—you really have to have a capability. So the president can say, hey, I have this particular geopolitical need, and NASA is going to say, well, we could get there—and I believe it has to be within 10 years for a cost of somewhat less than 5 percent of the federal budget—and as an agency or a space community could offer to be helpful. At this point we have not gotten there.
MILLER: I think there’s a great geopolitical opportunity for returning to the Moon. Right now NASA’s focused on Mars to the exclusion of the Moon, but all our international partners want to go to the Moon. We’ve been to the Moon but Japan has not, Europe has not, the Canadians have not, and they all want to go to the Moon. The director of ESA wants to go to the Moon. The head of the Canadian Space Agency has made remarks they want to go to the Moon. Japan would prefer to go to the Moon. And they quietly are telling us they would like to go back to the Moon with America as a partner. And we’ve been politely telling them that we’re not going to do that.
LOGSDON: Not exactly true.
MILLER: We have.
LOGSDON: We have said we’re not going to lead.
MILLER: We could have a strategy to go back to the Moon today that would fit within our budget—
LOGSDON: Have you said that?
MILLER: —and establish a permanent base there. And that would be, I think, the ultimate shining city on the hill and could, you know, really achieve some national geopolitical objectives. It would send a great message around the world.
BRENNER: So just to follow up—and we’ll get to the audience in a second—what is keeping these countries from going by themselves right now?
GARVER: So of all—you know, people complain that NASA doesn’t have a large enough budget, but if you total up every other nation’s space budget on the planet, they equal about three-quarters of NASA. So we are in the lead. We have a good head start. And I believe if we structure it, as I said, just a little bit, we would be running even faster, cooperating with other countries.
When we had our initial rollout of our 2011 plan and budget, I went overseas to sell it and they were all very interested in the new strategy, and it would have likely led to Mars only through the Moon. But when we had this political reaction to other programs being cut, the demand was for a destination. Within the budget we did not have enough for a lander for the Moon, so the president picks an asteroid. We certainly didn’t have enough to go to Mars.
So it was just a budget reality, not a “we’ll never go to the Moon again” policy, but it has ended up—I think because the leadership at NASA currently is more interested in Mars and they want to build this big rocket, and the justification has to be something.
LOGSDON: I mean, if you listen to Charlie Bolden, the NASA administrator, the language has changed over the past couple of years to saying: We’re ready to help people go back to the Moon. We’re going to build a big rocket. We’re just not going to have the money to build the lander. But if somebody else builds the lander, we’d be happy to be a partner in return to the Moon. And I, frankly, personal view, I think that that would be the smart way to proceed.
GARVER: And so why aren’t they, just like we aren’t? What is the purpose? What is going to cause your nation’s citizens to say, yeah, I want to put my money into this so we can be the, you know, seventh nation to the Moon and send someone? You need to, I think, address that. Most other space programs, even though they’re a lot smaller than us to begin with, have even a smaller portion of them for human spaceflight. They’re very focused on earth sciences and those benefits that return to society—
LOGSDON: Direct applications—
GARVER: —more visibly.
LOGSDON: —to their citizens.
GARVER: Yes. Yes.
BRENNER: Right. So with that, we invite audience members to join in the discussion. So please wait for the microphone and speak directly into it. Please stand, state your name and affiliation, and try to keep questions and comments concise to allow as many members as possible to speak.
Q: Rob Quartel with NTELX. And we have nothing to do with space, but I have a geopolitical question. I grew up just outside Cape Canaveral. My father started there in 1957, spent 35 years, designed the VAB. So I grew up on all this. And I think all this new stuff is incredibly exciting, the private-sector stuff.
The geopolitical—you mentioned the Europeans, the Japanese, and the Canadians and the rest. What about the Chinese? You know, two thirds of the planet has been born since we went to the Moon. And the remainder, half of them don’t believe we really went. So when the Chinese go, if they will—and I’m asking for an assessment—everybody’s going to think they were first. So talk about the Chinese and those guys.
GARVIN: I believe that we will go back before the Chinese go, personally, or we’ll go with them. I think we have the capability well beyond the Chinese. They have basically purchased their space program from Russia. They aren’t innovating like we are in this country yet. But they will get there. And their interest and these other nations in going to the Moon will likely inspire us to go back. And I think we will do it in a way that hopefully is sustainable, and potentially cooperative, depending on where this nation’s relationship goes with China.
LOGSDON: The Chinese in human spaceflight have done exactly what they’ve said they were going to do in 1992. They set out a program. They’ve executed that program. They’ve said they’re going to build a medium-size space station in the early 2020s; every reason to think that’s what they’re going to do. They have not yet said they intend to send people to the Moon. It’s the—I hate to use the word logical next step; it has a history to it. But any country that sends people into space eventually is going to want them to go somewhere. And the Moon is just an offshore island. So, I mean, it’s just logic that—
GARVIN: But they’re about where we were in the Gemini program.
LOGSDON: That’s right. They’re back in the ’60s.
MILLER: You have two geopolitical choices here, and I think there’s not been discussion about that, where you could return to the Moon. One would be a return to the Moon with your—most of the existing partners of the ISS, basically to send something consistent with our values that we’re going to be founded on democracies that also use free enterprise. And you can do the Moon in that way. That was the result of the study. You could do that. That’s a geopolitical choice to send the message that we’re going to be—the future of humanity is free enterprise and free democracy.
Another one, which is also a geopolitical choice, is to go back and bring China and Russia into the partnership as well. You start with the president and the Congress. Which geopolitical choice do they want to make? And I think it’s actually easier for a Republican to make the latter choice. It was Nixon who went to China, right? It was Nixon who did Apollo-Soyuz. I think it would have been more difficult for this president to do something like Apollo-Soyuz or do something with the Chinese, you know, and our crew system docking in space. But if it’s a Republican, it makes it a little easier. So you start with the geopolitical choice.
LOGSDON: Is that a campaign speech for a Republican president?
MILLER: I’m just saying—
GARVIN: We’ve got to fill our potholes first.
MILLER: No, it was not a campaign speech. So it’s—I’m just saying it’d probably be easier for a Republican to partner with the Chinese, you know. That doesn’t mean they would want to, OK. It depends on who you pick.
MILLER: All right. So those are the two choices. Pick your geopolitical choice and then you can have a program to support it.
BRENNER: Yes, sir.
Q: David Aaron, RAND Corporation.
I have two questions, really. One is just a factual question. What is the comparative size of the expenditures of NASA and our private sector? Do they compare? Are they—I’d just be interested in getting a sense—
LOGSDON: In space?
LOGSDON: In space?
LOGSDON: You have to put a discount on that, because there’s one big private application of space that makes lots of money, and therefore spends a lot of money to make it, which is communication satellites. That’s a big slice of spending, which really isn’t counted as space, even though the relays—the satellites are in space.
If you take that away, what would be the guess of private-sector space spending? And defining what you mean by private, there’s—it excludes selling to government, which is mainly where SpaceX is going, for example. I would say order of what, $3 (billion) or $4 billion a year maybe?
Q: So that’s compared to—
MILLER: It depends how you account for it. The total global—if you add what John just suggested excluding—the Space Foundation has an annual report—it approaches $200 billion a year of total revenue with all the different parts of the different commercial space program. And so the commercial part, if you count everything, is larger than the government. But if you don’t count things like telecom, like DirecTV, which is the biggest application, which is tens of billions of dollar of revenue that’s going into that, then it’s a much different answer.
GARVIN: And that sort of makes the point. I mean, it’s hundreds of billions of dollars that we get. It’s an export industry. This is something that this nation does well, and we’re in the lead in the private sector as well as government.
BRENNER: And the idea would be the private sector does it for less, right? So even if it’s—
Q: In principle.
BRENNER: Even if they’re doing the exact same thing, the idea would be that they’re going to spend less.
Q: My second question is, I’ve been struck by all this discussion of geopolitical objectives for the space program. What about scientific objectives? I haven’t heard a word about that as being something that was actually important and, in fact, motivates, I think, a lot of people out of school, anyway, to go into the space program. And since that is not a money maker necessarily, how can you ask the private sector, which has to look at the bottom line at some point, even in the future, to do the kinds of things that a nonprofit organization like NASA can devote its efforts to?
GARVIN: So we all talked about how the focus of this discussion on the human spaceflight program, that NASA does a lot of really valuable things, other things, and science is one of those. The science programs at NASA—earth science, aeronautics, space science—make up half of their budget. So that’s a fabulous thing.
Human spaceflight has never been about science. I know we like to use it every now and then. And the very last astronaut we sent to the Moon was, in fact, a geologist. But you don’t spend those amounts of public-sector money for science. I think NSF’s budget in its entirety is less than NASA’s, the whole National Science Foundation. So just the area—
LOGSDON: That’s much less than the total NASA.
GARVIN: So just the area of science that you can study in space would be a fraction of that if you didn’t have this glory attached to it.
LOGSDON: I mean, we’re spending $6 billion a year on robotic space science. If you took that out from under the cover of the broader human spaceflight public interest, whether you would get $6 billion a year on scientific payoff compared to other areas of science is arguable.
GARVIN: And I would argue NASA could do it in a way that gets a lot more science for the dollar by partnering with the private sector. A lot of the data we have the capability of getting from commercial satellites could provide scientific learning for people. And we’re starting to do more and more of that.
MILLER: Another thing; it’s not either-or with science or commerce. You know, lower costs, routine, reliable commercial services, you enable a lot of good science at much lower cost. So if you had a return to the Moon that was enabled by commercial partnerships, you’re going to do a whole bunch of science on the Moon. NASA could send astronauts to the Moon like it sends to the space station, on commercial rockets, at much lower cost. And then they could do a ton of science at the Moon. You could put a radio telescope on the far side of the Moon; a lot of people would like to do. There is a lot to do. So there is a win-win there where you can do both.
GARVIN: The Webb telescope alone is a $9 billion science mission that NASA intends to launch in a couple of years. They do a lot of—
LOGSDON: I saw Webb this week. I was out at Goddard Space Flight Center. It’s going to be, what, 18 mirrors and a very elaborate structure. The first mirror is going to be put in next week.
GARVIN: It’s sort of—and it’s your typical government program. I go see the Webb a lot in its development, and they would show you a map with where we mined for this material here and then shipped it here and then polished it there, and then they had—and this were all congressional districts. And they considered it a feature, not a bug. I mean, no wonder it cost $9 billion.
GARVIN: Do you think if we had done that in a different way, we could have it already?
LOGSDON: Which was $8 billion more than projected at the start.
GARVIN: Not to mention that it took so long that a lot of the science that we’re getting now from Kepler, you would do things differently. So it’s one of these that’s going to pass you along the way if you set your architecture and your technology at a point in time for a 20-year program. That’s my other problem with setting the architecture now for Mars. My criticisms are quite different than those who say, oh, we don’t have a real program. Of course we don’t. It’s 20 years away.
LOGSDON: We should.
BRENNER: Yes, sir. Then we’ll jump in the back. Yeah.
Q: Banning Garrett, consultant, and Singularity University.
I’m very interested in all you’ve been saying. And one of the things you—I think I’d love to see you elaborate on is sort of the disruptive technologies coming from the private sector. And you’ve mentioned CubeSats, which there’s no money in them for Boeing and Lockheed compared to billion-dollar satellites, right. And it’s totally disruptive. They can do so many new things now much more cheaply, and a lot more of it.
I’ve also worked with the Made In Space people, who put the first 3-D printer on the space station, as you well know. What’s interesting there is why wasn’t that done by Lockheed? Because there’s no money in it. I mean, and they did it for $2 (million), $3 million. It’s three guys came out of Singularity in 2010, created a little company with the help of NASA. Pete Worden and those guys figured out how to do a zero-G printer, put it on the station.
But the whole point was their idea is you can’t really go into space seriously if you can’t make stuff in space. You have to haul it all out of the gravity well of Earth, already made, and be able to withstand nine Gs of gravity. If you can make it in space, it can be lighter, faster, better, et cetera. So they built a printer that can print in a vacuum, so you could extrude huge structures. And if you want to go to Mars and the Moon, you could send robotic printers to build the structures before you ever get there. I mean, it’s a whole different way of doing things. It seems a bit of a threat to the traditional space Mafia, as somebody once called it in the Pentagon to me.
And I wonder what you think, because I think that’s a lot of what’s happening is a new way of doing things and getting things done that might not have been possible in the past and greatly lower the cost if you can make stuff in space instead of haul it out.
BRENNER: And that’s a good—how much control do the bigger companies that are in the private sector, the Lockheeds and Boeings and others, how much are they controlling that side of things compared to the small startups?
GARVIN: Almost entirely. That is the military-industrial complex. And you would see some of those briefings are so exciting. Even an astronaut briefed on using lunar material with robotics that could generate more robots to build whatever—whether it be the telescopes we wanted in space.
You have in-space refueling that would radically change the architecture that you would use. And these are not unobtainium. These are things that you could actually invest in and do. And I just—it’s not different than other sectors. IBM did not innovate first, but they’re there. And they’re still around, and they’re making more money. So I absolutely believe the major companies will do this. And it’s going to take—
GARVIN: —some of the smallers to lead.
LOGSDON: But they’ll do it.
GARVIN: But that’s, by the way, what is going to keep them sharp and competitive internationally. We aren’t helping Lockheed and Boeing by just giving them a cost-plus contract to do something that was invented 70 years ago. We are not helping U.S. competitiveness. We are holding them back. And so to really drive that, we’ve got just a blessing of industrialists of the day who are investing in this. And that is causing everybody to be sharper.
MILLER: An example of this is Jeff Bezos. He’s one of the great disrupters of our time. And he went out and built an engine for his company, Blue Origin. He’s got a secretive rocket company. And he went to a company, one of the big considered old-space companies, United Launch Alliance, which was in trouble from Elon, which—being disrupted, and he brought his engine in that was far ahead in development. And United Launch Alliance got a new CEO who said I’m going to use that engine and build a new launch vehicle; shifted the whole culture of the company in the last 24 months.
So that’s where a big, previously old-school company is adjusting. But at the same time, it’s really interesting. Aerojet, which had refused to spend $500 million to invest in the rocket engine because they were waiting for the U.S. government to pay for the development, went and spent the $500 billion buying another company called Pratt & Whitney. If they had spent it on the engine, then ULA would probably be using their engine today. So they were using old-style tactics, and Aerojet is in serious threat of maybe going out of business because their customer left them and just recently announced they’re not going to buy solid-rocket motors from them either.
So there’s a lot of disruption going on in the space industry today in a variety of different sectors.
GARVIN: And as with all of evolution, the earlier adopters get the best chance of succeeding. So—(laughs)—I love to see Boeing in our commercial crew, because they know how to do it with airplanes, they take risks with public transportation every day, and they are doing a great job.
BRENNER: The lady in the back. Then we’ll move forward.
Q: Leonor Tomero with House Armed Services Committee. Leonor Tomero with House Armed Services Committee.
So, piggybacking on this fascinating discussion about the revolution in the private sector with the advent of Black Sky, Planet Labs, where do you see the role for government then? Is it just to stand aside and reap the benefits? Or are there—is there something that government can do to further facilitate the success of these companies, more launch opportunities? What are the challenges? And should government help or stay on the side?
LOGSDON: Let me stick in just a point. She’s coming from House Armed Services Committee. We haven’t talked at all about how innovative or non-innovative the national security space sector is. I mean, there’s as much money there as there is in NASA of government money. Is that old space? Is there innovation there?
GARVIN: Yeah. They’re going through the same challenges. They are benefiting from the lower launch class, which is fabulous, because that’s our nation’s budget and the safety and security of our men and women overseas. They are buying commercial data—like 70 percent of their comms are bought commercially now. I was trying to get NASA to do that. But we’re more special.
And the—so I see a classic role like the NACA was for space and aeronautics development now for space. Of course there’s a role. There’s the science role. And there’s that cutting-edge technology and buying down the risk. And there’s even markets. The Air Mail Act that allowed airlines to get their real start are things we could be doing.
We can pay to fly our astronauts on vehicles that are taking other people as well and our stuff, hosted payloads. We have a tremendous amount that NASA could be doing. And I think that’s some of the fear at NASA. You grow up and you love this and you don’t want it to go away. It doesn’t go away. And you embrace all of the things that they will enable. They come more enabling than just doing it themselves.
MILLER: NASA’s greatest days are ahead of it. Everybody is looking in the mirror, pining for Apollo. I fundamentally believe that NASA’s greatest achievements are in front of us. They are, in my opinion, the long-term planning committee for the human race. And they need to do it in partnership with every part of America and our international partners.
But we don’t have—private industry is very short-term thinking, five-year time horizons. We need somebody who’s thinking long term and making long-term investments in the technologies and capabilities and the science. And that is a good fit with the driving innovation and push that you get from private industry. We need to figure out how to make them work together. And that’s when we achieve greatness for America in general, but the human race more broadly.
Q: I’m Bob Bestani from National Defense University.
So I’m wondering if you could sort of distill all of this and, you know, pretend you’re a king for however period of time you want to be. Where’s the ideal point? How would you restructure things so that, you know, we have an ideal point in the future? How would you structure that?
LOGSDON: In what universe? (Laughter.)
Q: This current one.
LOGSDON: I mean, when we’re—
Q: We’re talking about space, any universe.
LOGSDON: Well, I know. But we’re talking about public money allocated through a political system. And that puts constraints on your freedom to innovate. If you take away those constraints and say, in an ideal world, we would have a coherent national strategy that relates to national security space, government space, commercial space, allocates roles, responsibilities, creates synergies.
Here we have a bunch of separate places with no central coordination and embedded in a political system that makes change very hard. Lori will—how do I want to say this? We used to have central authorities in the White House. We used to have a thing called a space council that was set up to do that kind of planning. The resistance to doing it was too strong, so it didn’t really work. But some central—I mean, at this point in the White House structure there are about three people that care about space. And they fight fires every hour. They don’t do long-term strategic planning. And that’s not the way to get a coherent policy.
GARVIN: I think that’s a piece of it. But for what NASA would actually be doing, you don’t have to look much farther than the budget request in 2011, that really brought down some of the long-term needs that any exploration program would have—a cheaper engine that you could operate for much less cost across government. The military would love to have this as well.
Looking at what we call 21st century infrastructure, which meant tearing down old expensive buildings and making sure that NASA was using facilities that they needed, not finding programs to fit large expensive facilities, and doing flagship missions that are unique in that they drive technology. It’s OK if they fail.
You do things like use solar electric propulsion, optical communications, which then can have tremendous benefits for the nation and the world and our own industry; being able to reestablish NASA as a lead, I think, internationally, reaching out to cooperate with others, deciding on a human exploration strategy that will include more people than just us, and finding the unique ways to go that will leave behind societal benefits. I think it is absolutely what we will be doing over time. It’s just we’re at the struggle between folks who, of course, always want to fight harder to keep something than anybody new to get it, because we don’t know who’s going to win in the new day.
BRENNER: There are two gentlemen in the back that I think had a question. We can do just two questions in a row and then—
Q: Paul Stimers with K&L Gates. And Leonor, thank you.
The question of what government can do, I think, has been answered over the last couple of weeks with a lot of work leading up to it. Congress just passed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which, among other things, helps create and extend and expand a regulatory regime that is designed to help make sure that the commercial space industry can launch safely, effectively, routinely, quickly. And creating that kind of a regime is vitally important. And that was a big step forward. That’s going to go to the president later this week.
And I think part of that includes kind of a sweeping provision that recognizes property rights in space. If you go to an asteroid or another location in space and obtain resources from there, according to this act, the U.S. government says that’s yours. That is an element of certainty that can unlock invest and can provide the kind of opportunity that develops these capabilities without relying on taxpayer money.
Lori, thank you for all of the scars that you’ve endured throughout this process, and the rest of you on the panel. It’s been quite a journey to get to where we are. And I agree that the future is looking very bright for the partnership between the commercial industry and NASA.
GARVIN: It has been a privilege and an honor. Thank you. Space property rights is on my list of things, like the Homestead Act, that the government did back to inspire and incentivize innovation that they can do hard work to get that done. But those are exactly the kinds of things government can do. But, of course, NASA wants to actually be more of a part of it. And there are plenty of those things as well. And driving down those risks that—in space propellant transfer, I just can’t believe you haven’t talked about. This was Charles’ thing. He really, really ran it hard while he was at NASA. And it would be a game changer for space exploration, driving down the cost, and so forth. But the forces that want to launch big rockets don’t want to do it.
MILLER: Propellant transfer would be a revolutionary technology. It would take all our—rather than building a new rocket, we can achieve most of our goals in space using existing launch vehicles from United Launch Alliance, from SpaceX. And what you need to do is propellant storage and transfer. And what most people don’t realize is 80 percent of the mass that you need to launch off the planet to go to the Moon or go to Mars is propellant. And if you can launch it up in smaller parts on smaller rockets and just transfer the propellant, kind of like we do with transporting gasoline to gas stations. We don’t take some huge monster truck to the gas station and do it all in one, you know, mission. You have multiple missions and you transfer the propellant.
If we do the same thing in space, it has a dramatic reduction in the cost of getting into space. And that was a core assumption in the study I reported that we just completed for NASA. And it saves—it reduces the cost of returning to the Moon by about an order of magnitude. So there’s huge benefits there.
LOGSDON: Let me react to the comment about property rights, because it’s a good Council on Foreign Relations type question. The U.S., through its legislation, has unilaterally declared property rights in space. There’s no U.N. treaty or any other international agreement on property rights. It’s a unilateral action. Does that mean we’re going to lead to form an international consensus by action? Or is it that we’re being kind of a rogue in doing that? I don’t know what the answer to that is, but it’s an interesting activity.
MILLER: The bill that Paul was talking about is actually a very smartly formed bill. And I commend the author of the original bill. It was—we are going to recognize the resources you mine that are yours, consistent with international law. So it’s very modeled after the existing outer-space treaty, existing international treaties, where you get a slot in geosynchronous. We recognize your right to broadcast from there without interference.
And so what this bill basically says is we’re going to recognize your right to use those resources and mine resources without interference and have a productive activity and, you know, so to have a contract to sell them. And it’s also based on international common law, where precedents have been set where the United States brought rocks back from the Moon, the Russians did the same, and we traded them. So we’re allowing commercial companies to do something similar to those other precedents.
BRENNER: So we have time for probably one more question. Before we take it—and then it’ll be you in a second—but I’d just remind everyone that this meeting has been on the record, so everything said here can be held against you in a court of law. (Laughter.)
LOGSDON: If anybody’s paying attention. (Laughter.)
BRENNER: Yes, sir. Yeah.
Q: David Wertime with Foreign Policy Magazine.
I can’t resist asking this question. What changes in everything you’ve been discussing if we discover extraterrestrial life? In particular I’m thinking of a, you know, relatively simple life form. How does that change in particular the political calculus? How does it remove some of the political constraints that you’ve been talking about? Thanks.
GARVIN: So extraterrestrial non-sentient life, we’ve sort of run the experiment. I think most scientists who have studied it believe there was, at least in the past, life on Mars. And it hasn’t changed much. I was at NASA in the ’90s when we thought we had found the Allan Hills fossil with life in it. And I remember thinking it would change everything. And it was a headline for two days. And this is long before the scientific process worked through where there was a lot of debate and determined not likely that it was a fossilized life form. But we ran the experiment politically and publicly, and it didn’t change a lot.
I think intelligent life is an entirely different construct. I thought two major disrupters externally—either finding intelligent life or an incoming asteroid with a likelihood to hit us—is what would incentivize the world to motivate to expand our efforts in either of those regards. But I don’t think that biological life does. If anything, it might keep you from going, because there’s a lot of people who feel that should be allowed to develop on its own and we would contaminate it.
MILLER: There is quite a few people that think that if humans—if we discover microbes on Mars, there will be a lot of resistance to allowing humans to go to Mars and make it a lot more difficult.
LOGSDON: And if you discover evidence of intelligent life in an exoplanet light years away, philosophically it’s a profound discovery, but you can’t do much about it at least until we get warp drive or something similar. And we’re not quite there yet.
MILLER: The most immediate political thing to probably break out is the fight over do you send that intelligent extraterrestrial life a signal, and you want—
GARVIN: We’ve been sending signals for—
MILLER: But do you intentionally, say, send them a very high-power laser beam with communications to make it highly likely that they’ll see us? And there’s—you could be inviting them to come to our Solar System. Maybe they’re more advanced than us. There’s plenty of science fiction on the potential consequences of that.
LOGSDON: Well, but the nearest star is an eight-year round trip at the speed of light. So it’s good to think about.
GARVIN: We can’t go, yeah.
LOGSDON: We’re not going.
GARVIN: That’s a few disruptions away. But it’s a fascinating topic.
LOGSDON: Unless—you talked about singularity. Unless we get to the singularity—
MILLER: Right, right, right.
BRENNER: Well, on that note, you’ll all go see a big movie coming out, I’m sure—it’s called “Star Wars”—(laughter)—and talk about that. But I want to thank Lori, John, and Charles for joining us. I think this was a really great discussion. And thank you all for joining us as well. (Applause.)
GARVIN: Thank you.
This is an uncorrected transcript.