Launch Industry Awaits Clinton Policy

The Clinton administration is putting the finishing touches on its formal space transportation policy, which is expected to be announced around July 20 -- the 25th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

The nation's launch policy has been one of the most difficult space issues for the administration and will be especially scrutinized by the struggling U.S. launch industry. The new National Science and Technology Council is putting together a final version of the launch policy for the White House to approve.

"The administration is very close to finalizing the policy," said Marc Johansen, assistant director for space at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The administration's policy seeks to advance the stalled U.S. space launch modernization program in a manner that satisfies military and commercial interests. Drafts of the launch policy separate the roles of the Department of Defense and NASA. DoD would be given the responsibility to modernize current launch vehicles and NASA would be charged with developing new launch technologies, said Johansen.

Therefore NASA would be responsible for developing reusable single-stage-to-orbit, or SSTO, vehicles. Gen. Daniel Graham, chairman of the board for the Space Transportation Association, said he worries about NASA being in the lead on SSTO technology.

He said he fears there will be a tendency to create a vehicle that would just be a follow-on to the space shuttle, instead of developing a reusable vehicle with commercial uses. SSTO technology could "radically change the cost of space launch" and could cause an "explosion of space uses," including tourism, he said.

Elaine David, counsel for the House Subcommittee on Space, commended the administration's plan to clearly divide NASA and DoD responsibilities. She is "relieved" Congress will not have to fund another joint program, she said.

Last month the administration announced two space policies that focus on converging agency responsibilities; one deals with the Landsat remote sensing satellite program, the other combines the U.S. civilian and military weather satellites into a single system (WT, May 19).

Drafts of the administration's launch policy suggest that more attention is being paid to industry, said Gen. Graham. Keith Calhoun-Senghor, director of the Commerce Department's Office of Air and Space Commercialization, said that under the administration's space policy "the government won't be making decisions in a vacuum."

Peter Diamandis, vice president for commercial space programs at Rockville, Md.-based CTA Inc., said he approves of putting NASA in charge of new technologies. It is like going "back to the basics," since NASA's charter is based on a research and development mission, said Diamandis.

However he is worried about funding, since new technology projects like the SSTO are large-budget items and NASA's budget "isn't what it used to be."

The administration's policy also deals with the government's excess ballistic missiles, which the U.S. launch industry had hoped the government would sell.

But the Pentagon argued the missiles were government assets and cited concern with liability and national security issues, said OSTP's Johansen. Under drafts of the policy, the Pentagon will retain the missiles, he said. There are about 400 excess ballistic missiles in the United States.

CTA's Diamandis criticized the government's decision to not sell its excess ballistic missiles. "The U.S. is missing an opportunity to move its low-earth orbit (or LEO) industry significantly forward."

Using the ballistic missiles would have lowered launch costs dramatically, thus enhancing a potential market in space, Diamandis said.

The administration policy on missiles does open the door to industry a crack. Johansen said when the government is going to launch on the refurbished missiles, it will allow private industry to bid for providing a cheaper, more efficient launch.

Meanwhile, on May 24, Colorado Republican Rep. Joel Hefley introduced a bill that would establish a for-profit firm to launch satellites for domestic and foreign customers as well as for the federal government.

The corporation would decide what type of new rockets to build, then would turn to the U.S. aerospace industry to develop the new launch vehicles. Hefley argues that the corporation would jump-start the U.S. launch industry, which has lost 70 percent of its business over the last 10 years to foreign competition.

"The American airline industry didn't take off until the government began using it to fly mail," Hefley said in a news release. "It's the same thing with this bill. My proposal would save the government money in the long run."

Hefley's bill does not introduce a novel idea. A Pentagon launch modernization study, submitted to Congress on May 6, examined the possibility of forming a corporation and concluded it would need $3.5 billion in government funds for the first five to seven years.

The panel, led by Lt. Gen. Thomas Moorman, vice commander of Air Force Space Command in Colorado Springs, concluded that "absent a major breakthrough in the commercialization of space," the corporation approach isn't needed now. But the approach should continue to be examined, the Moorman report said.

The administration's space transportation policy does not endorse creating a commercial launch business or anything similar to what Hefley's bill would establish, Johansen said.

The first public announcement of the administration's space transportation policy is likely to come in late July.

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