Congress is Closing The Wrong Barn Door

by Dale M. Gray

Lately, when it comes to technology, America has been more spoiled child than world leader. As we enter the dawn of a new commercial space frontier, America boasts technologies well in advance of the rest of the world. When it comes to humans traveling to space, our venerable Shuttle outstrips anyone, including the Russians who are functioning on former Soviet technology. The Chinese, through their own research and intensive spying on America and Russia, have rapidly advanced their technology. In the next few years the China to orbit a manned capsule that would put them on par with Glenn's first flight. This gap in technological development makes America's recent actions all the more confusing.

America is in the midst of a space-based frontier explosion ignited by the communications satellite industry. Fueling the expansion are the Internet, remote sensing, GPS industries and weather monitoring. There are now far more American satellites waiting to be launched than can be handled by the American and European Space Agency launch systems. In fact, there are more satellites waiting to be launched than American, ESA, Japanese, Russian, Ukrainian, Chinese or Indian launch systems can handle. In a time when billions of dollars are at stake, companies trying to get their satellite systems in orbit are desperately seeking any means to get them launched. Corners are being cut, unproved launch systems are being used, and dubious governments such as China are being approached for rides. We are now in the midst of the frontier in space that we have always wanted, but America does not have the launch infrastructure handle the volume of business on its own.

The problem stems from what is arguably the greatest machine ever created -- the US Space Shuttle. In the early stages of the space-based communications frontier, the demand was so light that Congress mandated US satellites be launched from the Shuttle. In theory, the increased business would drive down the cost of shuttle launches and lead to the 1980s version of "Cheap Access to Space". The premise was flawed in that bureaucracies do not make for marketplace efficiency. Further, with an investment in the billions of dollars for each orbiter, the Shuttle fleet could not hope to pay its own development costs, nor finance the next generation of orbiters. The infant US expendable rocket industry died when it could not compete against the subsidized shuttle. Then came Challenger. Following that terrible day in 1986, America awoke with the realization that it had NO way to get into orbit.

Into the launch-service gap stepped the European Space Agency with its Ariane 3 rocket. The Ariane 3 rocket first flew in August of 1984, and was capable of orbiting two 1,200 kg satellites. The subsidized Ariane development allowed the rocket to be offered for reasonable rates. Most importantly it was the only commercial rocket available. In the words of Forrest Gump, "After that (the storm), shrimping was EASY!"

Even as investigators began to sort through the wreckage of Challenger, American companies were dusting off ICBMs to press them back into service as satellite launchers. In 1988, the ESA had introduced the Ariane 4 doubling the lift capability of the Ariane 3. The Shuttle returned to service, but Congress reversed its earlier mandate -- in the post-Challenger NASA there would be no commercial Shuttle missions. Safety, not rapid progress became the new NASA cultural by-word. Worse, the irreparable damage to America's launch share had been done. Arianespace had come to dominate the world launch market. For the next decade, private American launch companies would be playing catch-up to Ariane. With the commercialization of the former Soviet launch systems and the Chinese entry into the world-wide launch services market, America found its market share further eroded even as the demand for launch services skyrocketed.

While America has been hampered in the development of its launch infrastructure, the American satellite manufacturing industry has flourished and has come to dominate the world market. In the years that the American rocket business was side-lined, an American-based computer frontier emerged, pushing the country to the fore-front of the commercial satellite business. With no domestic launchers available, the major players were forced to utilize Ariane rockets. As Delta and Atlas came on-line, the back-log of governmental payloads quickly filled their launch manifests. While American satellite manufacturers have seen their market share drop in recent years, the vast majority of commercial satellites in orbit were built and are continuing to be built by Hughes, Loral, TRW, Motorola, Lockheed Martin and Orbital Sciences. Their foreign clients feel little reason to utilize American launch system like the Atlas which costs about $70 million when they can launch two satellites on an Ariane V for $105 million or on a Russian rocket for $55 million.

The active satellite industry has been creating market-place forces that have begun to shape the design of the Ariane, Delta and Atlas rockets. In 1995, the last cold-war Atlas was launched. American rocket companies began to build anew -- allowing evolution of the design of expendable rockets to resume. Early ICBM designs were pushed to the limits of performance -- prompting the development of a second generation of Delta and Atlas rockets. This past year, even as we have witnessed the birth pains of a third generation of expendible rockets, a fourth generation is in late stages of testing. Market pressures have spawned unique international hybrids -- International Launch Services (ILS) markets both the Atlas and the Russian Proton rockets. The recently inaugurated SeaLaunch joint-venture successfully combined American management, Ukrainian boosters and Russian upper stages to place its first demonstration satellite in orbit March 29,1999. This American-organized concern will be offering rides at around $44 million. Lockheed Martin has based the design of its new Atlas 5 on the RD-180 -- a rocket engine based upon the Soviet RD-170 rocket engine. The power of this cultural hybrid will provide a new standard for American commercial lift capability. But these advances are endangered by America's newly acquired techno-retentive policies.

As a frontier historian, these are exciting times for me to be recording the future history of our collective race. The pace of frontier development in space hastens. Last year the number of commercial rocket launches for the first time outnumbered governmental and scientific launches. There is no mistaking the fact that commerce is now driving the space industry -- pumping tax dollars into to the governmental coffers instead of depleting them. Each satellite sale or successful commercial launch provides incentive for further satellite and rocket development; spurring further reduction in the costs associated with manufacturing and launching satellites.

One of the few dark spots on the radar is the US Congress putting restrictions on satellite export. By transferring the licensing of satellite export from the Commerce Department to the State Department, it has created a bottleneck that threatens to shut down the frontier. It is understood that this is a dangerous world and some people can't be trusted with advanced technology. China, the source of the problems, has been little touched by the export restrictions. However, the same cannot be said of America's satellite industry and the world-wide satellite communications frontier. The State Department has endangered America's future launch infrastructure by threatening Lockheed Martin's Atlas 5 rocket.

Congress closed the barn door after the horses have gone.

Next Issue: How the American Congress is now working to help the launch industry succeed.