Bigelow Aerospace, which is developing a private space station built from inflatable modules, has laid off 40 of its 90-person workforce. The move illustrates a couple of problems facing the nascent commercial space sector.
The problem is that even though the BA 330, a commercial space station that Bigelow is developing for commercial and government customers, will be ready for deployment soon, commercial space flight needed to access such a space station will not be available for some time. Most of the employees Bigelow is retaining are working on a partnership with Boeing to develop a space craft called the CST-100, which would take people and cargo to and from the Bigelow space station. The Boeing CST-100 is also in the Obama administration’s commercial crew program for the International Space Station.
The Bigelow layoffs illustrate a chicken and egg problem facing commercial space. In order to be viable, commercial space taxi companies have to develop private markets over and above the contract to service the ISS. However in order to be viable, such private markets, such as the Bigelow BA 330 space station, have to have a means to accessing them.
The Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, has concentrated its commercial space efforts on the launch side of the equation, providing subsidies and promised contracts to companies like Boeing and SpaceX, and attempting to create a friendly regulatory environment for commercial space travel.
But the federal government has been somewhat neglectful in helping to develop private markets, such as the Bigelow space station. Bigelow is the only serious commercial venture thus far to create what would in effect be a destination for private space taxis. The federal government could do more.
For example, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., has proposed legislation called “Zero Gravity, Zero Taxes” that would make outer space an enterprise zone. Taxes would not be levied on products and services created in space. Thus enterprises such as the Bigelow space station would be encouraged, which in turn would provide private markets for commercial space craft. Thus far the legislation has languished in Congress,
In recent congressional testimony, former NASA administration Mike Griffin, echoing a proposal made by this writer, suggested a lunar settlement would be another market for private space firms. Unlike the ISS, a lunar base or settlement would have room to grow substantially, as the cost of travel to the moon goes down and available resources, such as water, become developed.
Enabling private markets in space has been a neglected area of government space policy. But attending to the problem has more of a potential to jump start a commercial space sector than direct subsidies and government created markets could possibly offer. The sky is literally the limit in this case.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.