Sunday, February 28, 2010

Collaborative Government and Space

In some ways, I’m a pragmatist. My conservative attitudes would prefer not to see government as the primary spender and actor in space activities, but the economic situation is what it is. Uncle Sam is the 800-pound gorilla in the room when it comes to space spending. So the question that occurred to me was, “How do you get more government agencies that have a vested interest in space to push for more space-related spending?”

Most people, if they think of the federal budget at all, assume that the only space spending the U.S. Government does is on NASA. However, nearly all government agencies have activities that affect, or have their operations affected by, space technologies. For example, the Department of Commerce regulates space tourism; the Department of Agriculture relies on LANDSAT data to forecast crop yields and environmental health; the Department of Defense (DoD) uses satellites for everything from communications to directing smart weapons to their targets; the Department of Labor tracks job descriptions and employment trends for technical personnel. And so forth.

So my thoughts ran something like this: someone should review all of the agencies in the U.S. Government and determine exactly what parts of their activities are directly affected by space-based activities. From there, look for a way to connect all of those activities on the web (hat tip to Darlene for her emphasis on open government) so all of them can see the connections/overlaps. Open government web sites should make that process easier.

Darlene directed me to the site, which allows citizens to pull up all of the reports from the “Open Government” sites the Obama administration has set up. You can search for specific reports, search the “raw data” by keywords, or even a database dedicated solely to “geodata” (satellite imagery of the Earth). Unfortunately, the sorts of data I discussed above are not available on the or NASA’s open government site…at least not yet. Hm. Might have to do some clever digging and sorting of my own before I go making suggestions.

Regardless of the present state of affairs, what needs to happen is for all of the agencies affecting or affected by space to meet—in person or maybe through some sort of online forum/summit/collaborative environment—and discuss needs, policies, and long-term plans that would meet and simplify the government's requirements for space-based products and services.

For example, let’s say multiple agencies depend on a particular satellite constellation to conduct business and transfer information. Or, more likely, suppose different agencies are using different constellations instead of all using the same one. How much taxpayer money would be saved by sending data on one service instead of many? Or perhaps several agencies decide/discover that they would benefit from having access to a heavy-lift launch vehicle that could launch an entire satellite constellation all at once. Suddenly a space vehicle/infrastructure project would have multiple constituencies fighting for it instead of just the NASA lobby. From such discussions, multiple federal agencies could come a list of requirements for both the satellite system and its launch vehicle. One hypothetical example might be:
“The U.S. Government has identified the need for a communications satellite constellation capable of handling X bit rate of data traffic with Y encryption and an ability to be on station within Z days of tasking.

“This system would further require a heavy-lift launch vehicle with A capacity able to launch B times a year within C days.

“Such an integrated system would enable D, E, F, and G agencies to:

  • Reduce redundant capabilities/costs by $X billion,
  • Meet cross-cutting data handling capabilities/long-term goals, and/or
  • Share costs / information between or among agencies.”
The advantage of meeting uniform needs, standards, and requirements for a large customer, as my private sector friends are eager to point out, is that it drives specific technological innovations, mass production, interoperability, and ultimately lower costs.
In addition to identifying government needs for space hardware, a government-space forum could be used to identify places where existing laws and regulations conflict with each other, stifle development (e.g. International Traffic in Arms Regulations/ITAR), or affect public safety.
This forum also could attract policymakers interested in consolidating or developing the nation’s space policies in the future. Experts could be included from public policy think tanks from the left and right (as well as space advocates eager to advance particular forms of space development) to arrive at integrated plans for legislation. Rather than just have NASA and, maybe, the National Science Foundation and DoD at the table talking about space, the entire government could have space on its mind, which it should anyway. :-)
This is not quite as glamorous or “sexy” as advocating for rockets that go where no one has gone before, but it is one way to play the government game to the advantage of space exploration. After all, if you had mass-produced tools that improved space operations for Earth applications, it is entirely likely that such capabilities, once built, can and will be used for exploration. Funny how that works out.
Bart Leahy is a technical writer. The opinions expressed in this editorial are his own.

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