Last week I had the opportunity to promote the "Citizen's Space Agenda" as part of the Alliance for Space Development's "March Storm" project. It was a well-organized initiative with clear legislative objectives. Here's what we were trying to accomplish:
- Ensure a gap-less transition from the International Space Station to a commercial space station. We were looking for representatives and senators to sign a letter which charges NASA to formally study how to ensure this gap-less transition.
- Add "settlement" to NASA's official mission statement. Rep Dana Rohrabacher introduced the bill in the House last March, and will again this year, so we were looking for a democrat co-sponsor in the House as well as sponsors of a companion bill in the Senate.
- Create a program to develop systems and infrastructure for ultra low cost access to space (ULCATS). Draft legislation in need of a primary or original sponsor.
- Stimulate commercial growth in cis-lunar space through public-private partnerships. Draft legislation in need of a primary or original sponsor.
None of these drafts have budget requests for FY2018 in them, which is an important point to note. We were not asking congress for millions of dollars for a new launch pad or anything, we were asking congress to set priorities.
We had about 30 volunteers total. We split up into teams and met with legislative assistants for as many representatives and senators as we could. I probably had about 15 meetings throughout the week and went to another 15 office just to drop off petitions from constituents.
Gap-less Transition from ISS to Commercial Space Stations
Ensure a gap-less transition from the International Space Station to a commercial space station. We were looking for representatives and senators to sign a letter which charges NASA to formally study how to ensure this gap-less transition.
The legislative assistants we talked to all supported the ISS, though none were enthusiastic about taking the lead role as a primary signer of the letter we proposed. Many said there was a high probability that their senator or representative would sign the letter if someone else took the lead.
Both democrats and republicans responded positively to the goal of ensuring that America maintains a leadership role in human spaceflight activities, especially as the owner of the primary laboratory for in-space research. Nobody wanted to see American companies put their experiments on a Chinese space station. I went to mostly republican offices because most of the senators and representatives are republican, so I tried to talk about mostly republican values. That's the tough thing about being an advocate on the hill; you have to stick to topics that the legislative assistants are familiar with, and while you can mention the things you are really passionate about, you can't have a two-way conversation about anything really technical or potentially game-changing.
The party lines we stuck to for this gapless ISS transition ask were STEM education and inspiration for democrats, and for republicans it was business opportunity for American companies in an American national laboratory in space, and the priority of continued American leadership in space in opposition to China's rising space capabilities.
LA's paid a lot of lip service to the ISS, but nobody wanted to push their senator to sign the letter. I wouldn't be concerned if the letter didn't get through because I have a lot of confidence that Bill Gerstenmaier, the head of the human explorations and operations division of NASA, will continue to push for maximum utilization of ISS to prepare for next-generation commercial and government interests. Bill is really focused on getting technology readiness levels up while we still have this test bed up there. Bigelow's BEAM test is attached to the station now, and the commercial crew program should be online by the time the station goes offline as well. Last year Bill distributed an RFI asking commercial companies what they would do if NASA gave them access to an airlock or berthing port on the ISS as part of an initiative to kindle development in the next generation of commercial space station capabilities. The missing piece is economics. Bigelow, or anyone else, has to be able to make money with a commercial station. This is a huge question which does not have a single right answer. I would love to hear your thoughts on the economics of commercial space stations if you can get in touch with me.
Add "Settlement" to NASA's Mission through the SEDS Act
Add "settlement" to NASA's official mission statement. Rep Dana Rohrabacher introduced the bill in the House last March, and will again this year, so we were looking for a democrat co-sponsor in the House as well as sponsors of a companion bill in the Senate.
I felt like this was the easiest ask we had. There is already a primary sponsor for this bill, so we were looking for additional support. Unfortunately, I don't think this really resonated with anyone that I talked to. I actually felt awkward when other team members took the lead on this talking point, because they tended to stray too far over to the space cadet line of thinking, quoting the dream of "millions of people living and working in outer space" and talking about things like O'Neill cylinders.
I only ever said the word "settlement" when introducing the name of the legislation, preferring instead phrases like "sustained human presence." When I talked about this topic, I made three arguments depending upon who I was talking to. The first was that a sustained presence in outer space gives certainty to those who want to do business in space. The goal is to extend the economy to space and foster commercial opportunities. The second point I made, to republicans, was that the value system of those in space is determined by those that go there, not those that stay behind. We want to see the American values of a free market economy, the value of entrepreneurship as an opportunity for anyone regardless of race or religion to better their position in life, and the values of free speech and free thought, then we should make sure that Americans have a presence in space because we cannot rely on the Chinese to bring these values. I first heard this argument, or something similar, from Scott Pace. The third thing I talked about was that if you want to inspire kids to go into STEM fields, you need an inspirational mission.
Personally, I'm bullish on space settlement during my lifetime. I think that we will have a large and vibrant industry in space that will require human workers in space, and I hope to be in charge of one of the companies that employs workers in low Earth orbit, the Moon, and Mars. I don't think that it's NASA's mission to settle space, but I was not on the hill to lobby my own positions. We were there to represent a cohesive agenda from the Alliance for Space Development.
Ultra-Low Cost Access to Space
Create a program to develop systems and infrastructure for ultra low cost access to space (ULCATS). Draft legislation in need of a primary or original sponsor.
Though I thought that this is a pretty big ask, this was the favorite topic for many legislative assistants. A few of the space staffers were also space nerds, and nerds love nothing more than talking about SpaceX. The "SpaceX model" works, according to them, and we should definitely push for more stuff like it. So we tried to push for public-private partnerships to develop ultra-low cost access to space technology just like the COTS program that developed the SpaceX dragon, Orbital ATK Cygnuss, and now Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser.
In most offices, I tried to emphasize the breadth of the infrastructure needed for such a program, which helped get staffers interested in what their state could bring to the table. I also had to emphasize that the legislation does not appropriate any funds, but instead mandates a particular type of program model, specifically the COTS model not the cost-plus model. In the end, it was obvious that this would be a big program, and a senator would have to spend a lot of political capital to get it started, so I think it's pretty unrealistic.
We had to be kind of defensive with this topic to make sure it wasn't framed as "ULCATS vs SLS." I made sure that the LA's understood that we were not taking sides, though it's pretty obvious that an ULCATS program would be part of a reality where the SLS program is canceled. SLS and ULCATS technically do very different things, heavy lift once every two years, vs lighter lift once every two weeks, but the competition is there still.
Commercial Growth in Cis-Lunar Space
Stimulate commercial growth in cis-lunar space through public-private partnerships. Draft legislation in need of a primary or original sponsor.
I felt that a lot of people's eyes glazed over when we first started explaining cislunar space. Mine sure did. It's not as far away as Mars, but it's still way harder to get to the moon than to low Earth orbit, and with no clear business opportunities yet. I'm all about extending the economy into space and to the Moon, but to do that we need to extend the supply chain first to low Earth orbit. But we had a script to stick to, so I remained positive on the topic and tried to find a sponsor for this bill if I could.
Here were the talking points on this issue: There is opportunity for public-private partnerships delivering cargo to the Moon. International space programs want to go to the Moon, so America should lead and lead them to the Moon. We can't let China control the Moon for national security reasons. Oh and did I mention that there's ice on the Moon, ripe for harvest?
I would do March Storm or a similar activity again. It was fun to meet other space advocates, and interesting to see the mix of space nuts that showed up. Everybody was somewhere on the space cadet spectrum, with some way out beyond the edge of the bell curve. Really I think if you have a chance to go, you should go, but don't expect to push your own agenda. I'm not a Mars-first person or a Moon-first person, I'm a LEO-first person, but the nice thing about March Storm was that the policies we advocated for were largely applicable to all three.