Thirty-four years after Ronald Reagan opened NASA to free market forces, it’s finally becoming what he envisioned — contractors, old and new, working together to slash prices and make America more competitive with the rest of the world.
In 1984, Reagan signed an executive order to make the Department of Transportation “encourage, facilitate and coordinate” private sector companies to create expendable launch vehicles in tandem with the government, undercutting the old process that often required obtaining a launch permit from over a dozen different federal agencies.
Fast-forward to the present; the rewards of Reagan’s foresight have become as palpable as they have ever been.
This month, Rocket Lab, a new company, lifted off a rocket for the first time that carried small satellites. A New York Times columnist opined that it “could mark the beginning of a new era in the space business, where small countless rockets pop off from spaceports around the world.”
His analysis makes sense — not just because of Rocket Lab’s new launch system, which is expected to bring costs down ten-fold to $6 million per launch, but due to the influx of other upstarts that are sprouting up alongside it as well.
Currently, space-business investment firm Space Angels is tracking 150 small companies that are similarly working to disrupt the status quo – among them: Vector Launch, Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit, Relativity Space, and Firefly Aerospace.
Soon, the government will be able to choose companies to perform space launches like consumers select companies for their clothes, soda, and gasoline needs. Competition in this industry is getting that fierce. None of this would have been possible without Reagan’s foresight.
But while newer companies like these continue to disrupt the status quo, NASA hasn’t forgotten the contractors of old either. That’s because the agency’s singular goal is seemingly to bring about efficiency at the lowest cost – something that must be achieved by a diverse set of companies, upstart and legacy contractors alike, depending on the situation.
This explains why in recent days, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has been so adamant about defending NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), writing on Twitter that, “In case there is any confusion, @NASA will NOT be retiring @NASA_SLS in 2022 or any foreseeable date. It is the backbone of America’s return to the Moon with international and commercial partners.”
He’s right. As former Apollo astronaut Harrison Schmitt wrote, not only will SLS “have the highest thrust system and largest payload capacity ever developed,” but it will also “launch more than twice the payload mass and 6 times the payload volume of any other American rocket.”
By slashing the number of necessary launches, SLS will drive costs down, mitigate risk on American astronauts, and make ambitious U.S. missions, such as Mars exploration, far more feasible. It’s an irreplaceable tool in NASA’s toolbox that will pay off handsomely in the years to come.
It’s refreshing to see that NASA is finally starting to function as Reagan envisioned it working, with openness and inclusivity ensuring that it award contracts based on merit, not money.
While it’s discouraging that up until this point, contracts seemed to more often follow those who had the best lobbyists rather than those who offered the best products, change always requires time, and at least the effects of Reagan’s Executive Order are coming into full force now, at a time when the Trump administration is making space exploration a national priority again.
We need this disruptive, creative
Shak Hill served for nine years as an Air Force combat pilot, retiring with the rank of captain.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.