Opinion: Let's create a Department of Space
A new agency could oversee international manned missions, while NASA focuses on its core competency, the author says.
July 16th, 2012
10:09 AM ET

Opinion: Let's create a Department of Space

Editor's note: Madhu Thangavelu is space projects director of the Cal-Earth Institute and a fellow at NASA's Institute of Advanced Concepts. He is an advisory board member of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics with a focus on the design of complex space projects, including space stations and exploratory missions. He also teaches at the University of Southern California.

By MadhuThangavelu, Special to CNN

The vehicle had that new-car smell, but this was no used car lot.

It was space exploration history in the making.

Astronauts said they noticed the familiar scent in May when they opened the hatch of SpaceX's unmanned Dragon crew vehicle and peered inside the first private spacecraft to visit the orbiting international space station.

Watch NASA video of the hatch opening

I had to laugh. I don’t recall any such comments in the past, when the ISS hooked up with space vehicles that were built by multinational and defense corporations.

The mission literally opened the door to a new era in space activity, announced NASA chief Charles Bolden.

Can you imagine? A small business run out of an L.A. warehouse is now able to support international space station logistics, which was formerly done only by defense suppliers!

Now that this new door is opening, perhaps it's time to consider a U.S. Department of Space, a department with a Cabinet-level director who can play a vital role in international space exploration.

Why?

  • It's the right economic climate, merging national pride, prestige and the motives of the profit-minded entrepreneur.
  • It will prevent logistical headaches by coordinating global space projects and private space companies and helping NASA focus on the agency’s core competencies.
  • It will save money by increasing efficiencies within the private and public space bureaucracies.
  • It's attractive to the new guard. The new generation will accept this new structure because it's not married to the past.

Government space programs have always been about national pride and international prestige, much like those evolving in China and Russia today, not to mention providing government jobs. It was never an economic matter as much as it was a policy-related one.

Private space activity, on the other hand, is all about the profit-minded entrepreneur. Perhaps we should merge these philosophies and create an agency with oversight of both public and private space activities. This would help NASA remove layers of bureaucratic burden and bring laser focus to NASA's trailblazing projects.

Besides helping build infrastructure of friendly nations, a U.S. Department of Space would:

  • align projects and goals of various spacefaring nations.
  • assist in global space projects like planetary defense.
  • create and run international manned missions.
  • mitigate orbiting space junk and other debris.

A Department of Space would also help coordinate the activities of fledgling private space companies. These kinds of firms have a history of being squashed by NASA as it tries to protect the agency’s own charter and monopoly.

Already, even before the impending advent of routine suborbital space tourism flights by Virgin Galactic, the FAA is involved, studying the potential impact of transatmospheric vehicles on airline traffic.

A new space agency could help companies cut through government bureaucracies such as the Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Occupational Safety and Health Administration, all of which will have expanding roles in commercial space.

For example, the satellite industry accuses the State Department of making it harder to compete for customers, because private industry must get the agency's approval when sensitive or restricted technology is used aboard satellites. When satellite companies are denied use of this technology, it makes it harder for them to compete for global customers.

A Department of Space could balance the State Department's national security concerns with private industry's need to compete.

NASA's role

NASA may not be able to handle all these auxiliary functions that will be thrust upon it without radical changes to the agency’s charter.

Perhaps it's better for the agency to stay close to its original charter and provide leadership in its area of core competency: space science, high-risk technology development and endurance-class manned missions to deep space.

A Department of Space must not be misconstrued as a threat to NASA. Nor should it be portrayed as a stealthy Pentagon effort to increase its global influence.

But NASA finds itself in a position of being asked to do too much with too little for too long. And in keeping with erratic budget trims and fixes, the agency’s vision has been badly warped over time.

The NASA vision of today is nebulous and seems to pay lip service, trying to do all things for all people.

Financial and human support

A University of Southern California team project from last fall presented a case that a Department of Space should operate at a budget level of $60 billion - of which NASA should have $20 billion to build, test and fly daring, leading-edge space science, technology and human missions into deep space. By comparison, NASA's funding outlined in the 2012 federal budget was $18.7 billion (PDF).

It is possible for small companies like Aerovironment or SpaceX to innovate and field systems at a fraction of the cost and overhead of larger corporations.

Some of the astronaut heroes of another generation seem to favor to continue to support a large governmental role for space development, and it appears hard for them to accept the dramatic changes happening today.

Contrast that with the smart, can-do graduate students I work with at USC. They were born into a closely knit world vastly richer in stimuli and experiences. This communications-savvy “texting” generation’s view of the globe is smaller and vibrant with possibilities. They have a smoother, firmer handle on complexity. They have an unparalleled ability to process information. And so I tend to sympathize with their fresh, new views.

Human space activity exemplifies cosmopolitanism, the philosophy that all people everywhere share the same values while respecting cultural differences and accepting of plurality.

We might do well to pay attention to the fact that eight minutes into flight, space travel puts people in a global regime that upsets 20th-century political dogma and Machiavellian statecraft and pushes us to think as a truly globally connected species.

A U.S. Department of Space would be a shot heard around the world.

It would signal our allies that civilian space activity has entered mainstream America.

It would show that the administration intends to fully nurture and vigorously support leading edge technology and engineering.

It would summon the crème de la crème among our innovators across the board of disciplines and professions that are the core of human space activity,  and thereby help align the ambitions of other nations too, creating new industry and promising rewarding opportunities for the new generation.

Space technologies and missions are evolving at a rapid pace around the world.

And true space commerce has sprouted in small businesses all over America.

Our window of opportunity to seize the moment may not last long.

We must energize this fully homegrown 21st-century phenomenon with all we got. Carpe diem!

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Madhu Thangavelu.

Post by:
Filed under: Commentary • In Space • Voices
soundoff (51 Responses)
  1. jaideep Gautam

    i think it will not fail...leave it on future what uphold next

    March 15, 2013 at 6:02 pm |
  2. Bob

    WE have a Dept. for everything else, Why Not? We can actually learn something from the Rover.

    August 8, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
  3. Owen Myers

    This is a great idea. An organization that could advocate for the future of the Human Space program and could coordinate the various government and private resources along with working with international space agencies could have the potential to have amazing results. Our race was once united by the Space Race (the sense of pride that the Moon Landing caused {"we did it!we did it!" not "the Americans did it!" as one astronaut put it} or when the Russians offered assistance during the Apollo 13 crisis) and has the potential of uniting us again by propelling us outward to planets to colonize and the wealth of information that could be discovered.

    And to those who think this would just be more government, consider letting the younger generation (those born in the late 80's and 90's, the ones that would actually be doing the exploring and innovating) have a shot at governing and running such a department. That generation has lived its entire existence with "big government" and the political polarization to the extent that we're fed up with it. We have vision too, something that previous generations have lacked.

    August 7, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  4. vArouet

    No. No no no.

    If there's ever going to be a governmental department regarding extraterrestrial exploration, it should NOT be allowed exist under one country. I absolutely REFUSE to condone war over space exploration and colonization rights. We have enough war over our own borders on this planet.

    August 6, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
  5. billweiser

    We have a Space program already that spends billions on things that will crash into a billion parts eventually. Why create another one that is going to be just as money hungry as NASA? Build a second program? Why so we can all go broke and do what The House Republicans want and default?

    July 25, 2012 at 7:38 am |
    • Tom

      the NASA budget is a fraction is less than half a penny on the dollar in funding. NASA is not what is going to make the US broke.

      July 26, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  6. susan

    I know you mentioned that the FAA is involved. They indeed already have built an Office of Commercial Space Transportation. Information on it is here: http://www.faa.gov/about/office_org/headquarters_offices/ast/. I think your idea is brilliant!

    July 24, 2012 at 11:50 pm |
  7. CDR Adama

    Creating a Department of Space makes far more sense than creating a Department of Homeland Security. One is positive in nature versus the other negative in nature. A Department of Space is about "freedom". The Department of Homeland Security is about the removal of "liberty". The only hope for this world's survival is to colonize space. Humans have a huge sense of "we dont get along". Space allows for room for like-minded folks to go where they want. We should have been living on the moon decades ago, but rather we just spend more time, money and lives killing each other here. A president and congress with the courage and foresight to make this happen gets my vote.

    July 24, 2012 at 8:00 am |
  8. Arielle

    Can't wait for the new department of space!

    July 24, 2012 at 1:24 am |
    • Coach Richard

      I would vote for any politician whose main motivator was exploration, not capitalization.

      July 24, 2012 at 6:19 am |
    • Jeff

      Why not

      July 25, 2012 at 8:05 pm |
  9. penguinsequallove

    right economic climate?!?!? We're cutting funding from public schools, arts education, and there has been talks about raising student loan interest rates and getting rid of a grace period... and you think it's the right economic climate? How the hell do you think anyone will be able to ever afford space travel??? If students get crappy educations and cannot afford to go to college, where is the next generation of engineers going to come from. Department of Space? Talk about frivolous spending!!

    July 23, 2012 at 11:36 pm |
  10. FoolKiller

    Why, so that the administration can tax space too? Seriously... most of our greatest advances were due either to the space program, or war. Why not try space first? I'm sure we will have an opportunity to go to war should that not work out.

    July 23, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  11. Stupidist Idea Yet

    Just what we need to top that lean mean machine called NASA another government agency???

    July 22, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
  12. Mr. Scott

    A Department of Space? We got something called NASA. Another "Department" would just be a waste of money. As it is the next manned spaceflight won't be done till the next decade and even then it won't be going very far (I give that another decade). As one astronaut said – when the U.S. goes to Mars, it won't be in my lifetime. Sadly I think he is right...

    July 21, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • Kevin Yerington

      I concur with the idea that " we already have NASA " . It should never have been stymied as if the shuttles were the last chapter. What we do not need is another governmental department to be run with recklessness and red tape. Let the experts do their job and simply have an oversight with our current legislative bodies. Period.

      July 22, 2012 at 9:11 am |
  13. William Stallings

    "It's attractive to the new guard. The new generation will accept this new structure because it's not married to the past."

    oh god here's serious

    July 21, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
  14. Erkan Sen

    Good ıdea but where you ganna fınd all that money to run department of space mısterrr

    July 21, 2012 at 9:08 am |
    • Yup

      Just like they fund everything else......inflation!

      July 23, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  15. V

    Monetize the space race. Set a goal, state how much you're willing to pay for achieving the goal, and demand that it be done safely. The private sector will do the rest. Letting the government do more than that will increase costs exponentially and delay timelines by a factor of 10. I'd rather politics as a whole have as little to do with our space program as possible.

    July 21, 2012 at 8:57 am |
  16. Space Core

    Space Core for president. Space president! SPAAAAAAAACE!

    July 20, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  17. BrianO

    I like this idea

    July 20, 2012 at 11:19 am |
  18. trex9

    I don't care and I'm a space nut

    July 20, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  19. Loyal Northern Democrate

    This is a great idea! The present Communist party will have a chance to redistribute wealth in new ways!

    July 18, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  20. dewed

    Will this department do for space exploration what
    Department of Defense did for defense?
    Department of Energy did for energy?
    Department of Education did for education?

    July 17, 2012 at 10:25 pm |
    • orion7x

      You mean regulate so we all don't get screwed over? Yes. Man is not responsible enough to do the right thing yet. Still a few hundred or more years away from the looks of it.

      July 19, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • Bincy

      they had to leave. Since they've done the inviting, I'm sure they'll work well togteher. Provided, of course, there is any real work to be done. Other than proving that long term structures can be built in space and giving us some really great pictures, what have we accomplished at the ISS? The point is, the U.S. government is NOT committed to space science (any science for that matter). We will not spend the money until our lives literally depend on it. And even then the naysayers will dispute it. Look at climate change. Who's winning that debate? Get used to robots in space. Put aside your dream (and mine) of standing on Mars, it's not going to happen.

      October 13, 2012 at 3:17 am |
  21. Brent

    This is a good idea that has a very long history, of sorts. Admiral Robert Shufeldt argued for a Maritime Department as far back as the 1870's that would be responsible for government sea activities (Navy and merchant marine development). There, he wanted the government to help fund the development of American shipping businesses. General Billy Mitchell in the 1930's also wanted a Department of Aeronautics that would oversee American military and commercial airplane development that would encourage private activity in aircraft production and operation. A Department of Space (if it would also oversee a sub-department military space command) is just the same idea applied to a newer environment. Unfortunately, neither idea was followed which means this one may not be either.

    And I sympathize with libertarian arguments, but the US steel industry was invented by the US Navy and the commercial aircraft industry would not have come about except for bomber development in World War II. Government expenditure (NOT government overregulation) can build solid and useful commercial industries. Space will likely need such a push.

    July 17, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
  22. Chris

    This would be the worst idea ever!!! Keep the government away from the private space industry as much as possible. The Dept of Energy was created in 1977 to end our dependence on foreign oil. At that time, oil imports accounted for approximately 35% of our consumption. Today the Department of Energy has over 15,000 employees and a budget of over $26 billion. Our country now imports over 50% of the oil it consumes. Very effective department..... If you want to kill the private space industry this would be a great way to do it. Which probably means Obama will go for it.

    July 17, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • KK Denver

      Oh stop it. President Obama is clearly the best president in decades. Grow a pair and stop listening to one source of news.

      July 17, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
      • Chris

        Yeah, great. You're right. Best economy we have had in decades. More respect than ever around the world. Pull your head out.

        July 17, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
      • orion7x

        Chris doesn't read or with any tv except for Fox, forgive him for he has no sense...

        July 19, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
      • Yup

        You mean George Bush III.

        Partiot Act still in place. Iraq war, we have a Billion dollar base, not leaving anytime soon. Surge in Afghanistan. The rise of Drone Warfare. Bombing in Pakistan. Bombing in LIbya. Defense Spending Levels. Still no Habeus Corpus....for suspected terrorists

        Romney could very well be GWIV or Obama the second

        Medicare Part D....National Healthcare.....and it is a tax.

        July 23, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • Franjo Schiller

      you are right "Keep the government away.................................................." the time has come for private space industries worldwide. I am not satisfied with efforts so far regarding my own country, Germany. We were the first in space with Werner von Braun, but now? The private capital is there, but there are no guys like Branson or others who have a vision or know that the future of mankind will be in space.

      July 18, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  23. Perry

    I am generally not an advocate for more government, but I don't think this has to be that. We do need to foster the private spaceflight industry by allowing it to develop with minimal government intervention (i.e. red tape). Too much onerous regulation will hamper it, if not kill it altogether. Let NASA focus on what NASA does best – developing new technologies and space missions – and let a Department of Space focus on shielding the private spaceflight industry from government over-regulation.

    July 17, 2012 at 11:32 am |
    • Amused

      You DO realize that NASA was HEAVILY involved in the ENTIRE project to get SpaceX's mission to succeed, right? And you realize that in this so-called "docking mission" to the ISS that the SpaceX craft DID NOT actually DOCK with the ISS at all! the SpaceX craft got reasonably close to the ISS and the ISS used its robotic arm to pull the spaceX craft toward the Station where they MANUALLY connected the craft to the ISS! SpaceX just BARELY succeeded by the skin of their teeth in this EXTREMELY elementary manuver! SpaceX still has a VERY LONG WAY to go before they can claim ANY amount of proficiency building or flying spacecraft. SpaceX did NOT do this by themselves! Don't get me wrong here, I am pulling for SpaceX to succeed and to become proficient, but this was only a first baby step! There will be more missions with more challenging tasks yet to come. As far as creating yet another bureacracy, We ALREADY HAVE a "Department of Space"! It is called NASA! It was NASA who is largely responsible for this initial, small success!

      July 17, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
      • S0MA

        exactly. its a political agenda to make SpaceX look good. whilst ignoring the fact that Russia puts up four times the payload, via automated docking; has performed more than a hundred launches, and built their own space station.

        its the 'ooh aaah' hoopla of SpaceX learning to ride a bike, meanwhile real space groups are lapping the Isle of Man.

        July 24, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  24. Glenn

    Another federally controlled program doomed to failure!?

    July 17, 2012 at 8:36 am |
  25. A Theisen

    Oh, BTW I fully agree with Mike.

    July 17, 2012 at 1:33 am |
  26. A Theisen

    The Brits have a Space Ministry and just look how fast they are going into space on their own.

    July 17, 2012 at 1:31 am |
  27. mike

    I respect the author and his viewpoint, but the commercial spaceflight federation is already working to create something similar to what the author is describing.

    July 16, 2012 at 11:48 pm |
    • xwindowsjunkie

      The difference between a Department of Space and the commercial organization is that the Department of Space can be funded by the Senate and Congress. A commercial organization will become a lobbyist. The problem I see is that the Luddite Republican party will just see it as "more government" instead of a new department focused on enhancing our country's ability to compete with other corporate endeavors in other countries. At one point the EU company Adriane Space was actually launching more commercial satellites than NASA or the US as a whole.

      Let NASA do the R & D, the deep-space programs, the purely science projects. Let the commercial firms do the "truck driving" to LEO and lunar transportation jobs.

      July 17, 2012 at 7:15 am |
      • Glenn

        I'm not a "Luddite Republican"....but I do see it as "more government"......we need LESS....Let the private sector have at it!

        July 17, 2012 at 8:40 am |
  28. mike

    Three reasons I don't like this. 1. I really don't want government interference in the private spaceflight sector. For the past forty years we have been stuck going back and forth to the ISS. I understand that it has been incredibly valuable for the pharmaceutical sector but manned spaceflight needs to be back on the table. Allowing government to get in the way again after it has only recently allowed the private sector entrance into space is jumping the gun a bit too soon. I want Elon to get to Mars and have Bigelow on the moon before government has the chance to stop them. If these businesses have obligations they must fulfill in space government has less reason to hinder their efforts. Call me a pessimist all you want but we have had the tech. to go to mars for the last thirty years and have done nothing. The one planet in our solar system that might provide a safe harbor for the human species if something should happen to this planet and we have done nothing. We really don't plan ahead, considering we know what happened to the dinosaurs. Give the private sector a chance to find its own direction. Don't put a ring through its nose and tell it what to do and when to jump. Let see where THEIR creativity can take us instead of depending upon the government's creativity that might keep us here indefinitely.

    July 16, 2012 at 11:28 pm |
  29. Elisabeth

    Why didn't I think of that?!

    July 16, 2012 at 10:09 pm |
  30. Chelsea

    Good thinking daddio

    July 16, 2012 at 9:31 pm |
  31. I'm The Best!

    This is a great idea. Too many people in government are to set in their ways though. I doubt it will happen any time soon.

    July 16, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  32. terryrayc

    Good idea.....which means it's probably doomed to fail.

    July 16, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • Yup

      Or Too Big to Fail!

      July 23, 2012 at 4:02 pm |

Contributors

  • Elizabeth LandauElizabeth Landau
    Writer/Producer
  • Sophia DengoSophia Dengo
    Senior Designer