Space Policy Digest – 10th Anniversary

It was ten years ago that the short (a little over a year) run of the online magazine Space Policy Digest (which I created and edited) came to an end.  Its associated discussion board would last a while longer.

The idea for Space Policy Digest grew out of the old Houston Chronicle space discussion board.  At a time when I was working on NASA space projects, I wanted to build a publication where people could write about the issues of space development at a length greater than a blog comment (although at the time, blogs didn’t yet exist).  As I wrote at the time:

Policy isn’t just “how much money should NASA get and how should they spend it?” It’s the question of NASA’s role (or existence), how do we fly these new launch (and landing) vehicles, how do we govern a moon settlement, how do we tax products built on a space station and a million other questions.

Space Policy Digest will look at all these questions and more. We’ll point out problems and propose answers. Not all those answers will agree (nobody said this space policy thing is easy).

I may have an ax to grind, but SPD doesn’t. Regular columnists come from different parts of the spectrum of space discussion, and where there are holes in the spectrum, we’ll search out additional contributors. We are always open to a well written guest column or article.

Contributors to Space Policy Digest included U.S. Senators (Bob Graham), professional space commentators and NASA veterans (Jim Oberg) and space entrepreneurs (Robert Bigelow).  Commenters on the discussion board ranged from active NASA and contractor employees to “Rocket Boy” Homer Hickam. 

What’s interesting in rereading them now (and the run is available at the archives’ Wayback Machine at http://web.archive.org/web/*/http://spacepolicy.org) is how the issues have changed less than one might think.  I wrote then:

If the government needs crewed, civilian access to space (the military’s need for space access, much as their role in aviation, is a separate issue) it should buy it. Again, there’s a precedent in aviation. Except for a short, disastrously unsuccessful, period when the Army was given the role, the mail has been flown by civilian carriers. The Air Mail contracts in the early part of the 20th Century were the subsidy that helped the fledgling airlines break even when there was little market for passenger flights. Eventually passengers were carried on mail flights, and finally the passenger traffic exceeded mail revenue. The need by airlines to serve the increasing passenger load led United to ask Boeing to build the 247, and TWA to ask Donald Douglas to build what became the DC-3, the airplane that made carrying passengers alone profitable and common.

In the same way, an “air mail” contract for crewed space services, bringing people and supplies into space, would jump start the first spacelines in this country. At first, the government might be the only customer, but the idea that spare seats would be rented to tourists is the next logical step. With the government subsidy, these seats would be pricey, but not fiscally impossible for someone rich enough or motivated enough, much as was the case with early airline fares. As demand increased, the spacelines would find ways to carry more passengers, and so the pattern would repeat.

This is the same debate going on today between supporters of the President’s plan for NASA and that being proposed by members of Congress.  Do we buy access to orbit from companies like SpaceX, Orbital and Boeing, or build Orion and Aries?

Life is interesting.  It takes many twists and turns.  Space Policy Digest was one such twist and turn in my life, and one I look back at fondly and proudly.

1 Comment

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One response to “Space Policy Digest – 10th Anniversary

  1. Pat O'Neill

    In part, my problem with the government buying its space transportation from private contractors is the same problem I have with privatizing mass transit…the minute it stops being profitable at a price the government (or the commuting public) can afford, the private contractors will bail…and there will be nothing to replace them.

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