US Air Force C-17 Globemaster III

Jim Hillhouse, the founder and editor of the Americaspace blog wrote:

We have a gov’t owned rocket rather than a commercial rocket for the same reason we don’t have United Airlines or FedEx as a replacement for the Air Mobility Command. It’s bad policy to hinge a national goal, in this case beyond Earth exploration, on the whims of commercial companies whose loyalties are to its shareholders, not the American people. You say that’s a problem. I disagree.

As it turns out, Mr. Hillhouse is ill-informed. The great bulk of US military logistics (over 80%) is performed by commercial carriers. The military even maintains a Civil Reserve Air Fleet program under which it can commandeer commercial aircraft in case of a national emergency. There are over 1300 airplanes in the CRAF.

The Air Mobility Command does not attempt to maintain enough aircraft to meet all of the military’s transport needs. It maintains only enough aircraft to handle those needs that cannot be met by commercial operators due to unique military requirements (such as operating in combat areas or mid-air refueling).

In his attempt to argue against commercial space transportation, Mr. Hillhouse unfairly impugns the patriotism of American companies like United Airlines and Federal Express whose services play a vital role in supporting the US military and preserving our national security.

Mr. Hillhouse may believe it’s bad policy to “hinge” a national goal, such as national security, on the “whims” of commercial companies but the military (and Congress) disagree. History suggests they are right. The Soviet Union went in the opposite direction. Even the “civil” government airline (Aeroflot) was, in fact, part of the Soviet Air Force. When the Cold War ended, however, it was the American system that was left standing.

As a footnote, Ronald Reagan, the President of United States who is commonly credited with ending the Cold War without firing a shot, was also the President who signed an order privatizing NASA’s unmanned satellite launchers.

Reagan signed that order even though manned national goals, including launching America’s weather satellites and deep-space probes, depended on those launchers. The decision was controversial at the time, but Ronald Reagan did not believe that everything of importance must be done by the government. (He read Frédéric Bastiat.) Unlike the politicians and pundits who argue for a return to government launch systems today, Reagan had faith in the private sector and the American people.

This touches on an interesting question: If the United States military is willing to trust commercial carriers for the bulk of its transportation needs, why shouldn’t NASA do the same? Is “beyond Earth Exploration” more critical to the United States than national defense? That seems hard to believe.

Although, it may not matter what Congress and NASA decide to do with space transportation. NASA just announced 8 new astronaut candidates, who will train for exploration missions. Almost simultaneously, Virgin Galactic announced that it signed its 600th astronaut candidate. In the near future, most people who explore beyond Earth will not work for NASA.

Written by Astro1 on June 17th, 2013 , Space Policy and Management

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    Steve Rogers commented

    It’s good for the military to have some organic airlift capacity, despite outsourcing most of it to commmercial air. There are some missions you’d rather not ask civilians to do. NASA can’t really make that argument.

    June 21, 2013 at 9:47 pm