NASA and the Space Industry

NASA and the Space Industry

by Joan Lisa Bromberg

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Few federal agencies have more extensive ties to the private sector than NASA. NASA's relationships with its many aerospace industry suppliers of rocket engines, computers, electronics, gauges, valves, O-rings, and other materials have often been described as "partnerships." These have produced a few memorable catastrophes, but mostly technical achievements of the

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Few federal agencies have more extensive ties to the private sector than NASA. NASA's relationships with its many aerospace industry suppliers of rocket engines, computers, electronics, gauges, valves, O-rings, and other materials have often been described as "partnerships." These have produced a few memorable catastrophes, but mostly technical achievements of the highest order. Until now, no one has written extensively about them.

In NASA and the Space Industry, Joan Lisa Bromberg explores how NASA's relationship with the private sector developed and how it works. She outlines the various kinds of expertise public and private sectors brought to the tasks NASA took on, describing how this division of labor changed over time. She explains why NASA sometimes encouraged and sometimes thwarted the privatization of space projects and describes the agency's role in the rise of such new space industries as launch vehicles and communications satellites.

Johns Hopkins University Press

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Editorial Reviews

As well as being an interesting read, NASA and the Space Industry demonstrates the effect that lack of clarity in space policy can have on the development of private sector space capability.

Enterprise and Society
A much-needed overview of a subject of great importance.

— Erik P. Rau

Enterprise and Society - Erik P. Rau
A much-needed overview of a subject of great importance.

Noting that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has more ties to the private sector than most US agencies, Bromberg (history and philosophy of science, U. of California-Davis) explores how the relationship developed over 50 years and how it works. She outlines the various kinds of expertise public and private sectors brought to the tasks NASA took on, how the division of labor changed over time, why the agency sometimes encouraged and sometimes thwarted the privatization of space projects, and its role in the rise of such new industries as launch vehicles and communications satellites. She wrote her account under contract to the agency's History Office Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

Product Details

Johns Hopkins University Press
Publication date:
New Series in NASA History
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.56(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

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Chapter 6: In the Wake of the Challenger

On January 28, 1986, the shuttle Challenger blew up seventy-three seconds after launch, killing all seven crew members. Any accident that leads to the death of astronauts is a special agony for NASA. In this case, the emotional and political pain was compounded by the presence of Christa McAuliffe as a member of the crew. McAuliffe, a New Hampshire high school teacher, had been played up by the agency and the media. She was to have been the teacher-in-space, the ordinary citizen whose inclusion signified that the shuttle was now a dependable vehicle. Instead, her death pointed up the risks of spaceflight and deepened the effect the accident had on NASA.

The Challenger's explosion also had an effect on NASA's dealings with industry. Not surprisingly the area most profoundly affected was space transportation. As a result of the accident, NASA's relation to the expendable launch vehicle industry was turned on its head; from being that industry's competitor, the agency was transformed into its customer.

The effect of the accident on the space station program was not as great. The mix of public and private elements in the program changed, but the explosion of the Challenger figured as only one of a number of causative factors. Nor did the mix change monotonically, with more and more of the space station program moving into the hands of the private sector. Rather, there was movement in both directions. Industry became a little more involved in systems integration. It was a slight difference but it presaged a greater shift down the road. But the idea, accepted by station partisans before the accident, that privately owned platforms would orbit alongside the government facility was defeated by them afterwards, for they came to see such platforms as rivals to the station.

Space Transportation

The Challenger accident had two immediate impacts on NASA activities in space transportation. First, it led the administration to ground the fleet of shuttles that was NASA's ferry into space. In early 1986 no one knew how long the shutdown would last; estimates varied from six months to two years. Second, it changed the balance of power between NASA and the shuttle's enemies within the Reagan administration. These enemies included first the Department of Transportation, whose Office of Commercial Space Transportation was just gearing up to license commercial launches, and which viewed itself as champion and spokesman for the commercial launch industry. Second, there was the Department of Commerce, where free-enterprise ideologues advocated turning over space infrastructure, including space transportation, to the private sector to the maximum extent possible. Finally, there was the Department of Defense, whose leaders had been battling NASA for several years for the right to send some of their payloads into orbit on expendable rockets. In 1984, the Defense Department had succeeded in winning the right to buy ten launchers for use over five years and in -1985 had chosen Martin Marietta's Titan over General Dynamics' Atlas-Centaur and NASA's SRB-X. But the struggle had not augmented its affection for the shuttle.

NASA had been weak even before the Challenger blew up. Deputy Administrator Hans Mark resigned in late 1984 and for a year, Administrator Beggs resisted the White House's attempts to appoint William R. Graham to succeed him. Beggs thought Graham lacked experience in technology and management. Then, shortly after Graham finally took the post in late 1985, Beggs was indicted on charges connected with a contract at General Dynamics, where he had been an executive prior to coming to NASA. By December 1985, NASA was functioning with only an acting administrator, William Graham, who was new to the agency and lacked support among NASA's managers. By subjecting NASA to an intensely public scrutiny and a barrage of criticism, the Challenger accident left the agency still more debilitated.

The suspension of shuttle flights impelled the three big manufacturers to take a fresh look at the market for launch vehicles. At this point, Martin Marietta was developing an upgraded version of its Titan (designated Titan IV) for its Air Force contract. It had newly received a separate Air Force contract to convert some old Titan II missiles into launchers. It was also thinking of converting another of its old military launchers into a commercial "Titan III." McDonnell Douglas, which had brought production of its Deltas to an end in December 1984, had turned the factory space over to other products. Delta production equipment was rusting in company sheds and courtyards. Only four complete Delta rockets remained in government inventories, although spare parts were available that could be assembled in case of need. General Dynamics had been trying for some time to work out arrangements to produce commercial AtlasCentaurs, but none was yet in production. There were four aspects to the market as these firms saw it. One was the payloads that were to have flown on the shuttle and now needed other transport. The backlog was all the greater because the shuttle office had planned a heavy schedule for 1986. Although the nine times that the shuttle had flown in 1985 were the most to that year, NASA had been planning fifteen flights for 1986. If the shuttles were grounded for six months, NASA estimated there were fifteen to twenty payloads that could never be rescheduled on shuttles; if the shutdown lasted more than a year, at least twenty-five to thirty payloads would go unlaunched.

A second aspect to the market was estimating future demand for launchers of commercial satellites. Vital here was the question of whether the shuttles would continue to book commercial and foreign government payloads, once they resumed flying. But the trajectory that communications technology would take was also an issue. The market for communications seemed certain to increase; the question was, what technologies would service these new communication needs? NASA projections for the number of communication satellites that would be launched in future years had consistently been high. But were they accurate? In 1986, terrestrial fiber optics links were beginning to threaten communications satellites as a means of providing telephone service between major cities. Moreover, an excess capacity of about 35 percent had developed as operating companies had launched larger satellites with more channels. Owners of satellite systems had drawn back from fielding new satellites as a consequence and this translated into a smaller market for launchers.

A third aspect to the market was the Department of Defense. The Air Force had reacted to the shuttles' grounding by ordering extra Titans from Martin Marietta in addition to the ten it had signed up for. It also instituted a competition for twelve smaller boosters. These would be used to loft the Global Positioning Satellites, a series of navigational satellites that had been stranded by the halt in shuttle flights. There were plenty of reasons to believe the Defense Department might procure more expendable launchers, now that it was liberated from its commitment to the shuttle.

The Air Force deliberately used military procurement to promote a civilian launch industry. Into its request for proposals for its twelve medium vehicles it incorporated the requirement that the winning company must offer a variant of its military booster to the commercial market. There were several ways in which furthering a commercial industry served military interests. Requiring its contractor to produce commercial as well as military units would lower the costs of each booster to the Defense Department, as fixed production costs could be spread over a larger number of units. A civilian industry would create excess capacity in case the DoD ever needed to increase its stock of boosters suddenly. And it would save the department the embarrassment of denying civilian satellites passage to space, were it to exercise its prerogative of bumping civilian payloads from the shuttle.

Finally, the aerospace companies had to give thought to the competition for commercial cargoes, such as the already operating European Ariane rockets. Down the road they would also face the Chinese, who were signaling their desire to put their Long March boosters in the commercial market. The Soviets wanted to offer their Protons. The Japanese had commercial launchers in the development phase. The short-term commercial market, roughly from 1988 through the early 1990s, with its demand from backlog spacecraft looked quite good. But would the longer-term market support more than one or, at most, two U.S. firms?

The strategies these considerations prompted varied with the company. McDonnell Douglas wanted the administration to continue flying commercial payloads on the shuttle as it had invested a considerable amount in its Payload Assist Module, which was designed to send spacecraft from the shuttle into other orbits. Martin Marietta and General Dynamics, to the contrary, lobbied first and foremost for an administration pledge to ban commercial cargoes from the shuttle.

The issue of whether to permit the shuttle to carry commercial payloads was debated in the president's Senior Interagency Group on Space, where NASA was represented, and in his Economic Policy Council, where it was not. Acting Administrator Graham was not opposed to banning commercial cargoes from the shuttle. He also wanted NASA to move toward a mixed launch fleet, composed of the shuttle and expendable vehicles, and he called for NASA to study the option of sending some of its own payloads on commercial launchers. Graham, however, was not destined to stay at NASA's helm. Beggs had struck a deal with the administration that he would resign if the administration would bring back James Fletcher to serve another term as NASA administrator. Fletcher was appointed and took office in May 1986.

Fletcher, reversing Graham, fought hard to keep commercial payloads for the shuttle. By this time, however, there were too many forces stacked against him. In addition to the Departments of Commerce, Transportation, and Defense within the administration, there were outside opponents. They included two of the three launch vehicle manufacturers, influential members of Congress, and members of the scientific community. The latter group was tired of the extra expense and work of "man-rating" its experiments for the shuttle, and chagrined at the delay the Challenger explosion had occasioned in the launching of major science spacecraft, like the Hubble telescope. On August 15, the fight was resolved. President Reagan issued a statement specifying that "NASA will no longer be in the business of launching private satellites." The road was now clearer for the big manufacturers...

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What People are saying about this

William H. Becker
An important study of a neglected aspect of NASA's history, that is, its relationship with the aerospace industry, which it helped bring into existence. Bromberg is particularly good in her nuanced discussions of how innovations and new ideas flowed back and forth from the agency to industry, and how the flow was influenced by large changes in the economy and polity.
—(William H. Becker, George Washington University)

Meet the Author

Joan Lisa Bromberg is a visiting scholar in the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology Department at the Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of Fusion: Science, Politics, and the Invention of a New Energy Source and The Laser in America, 1950-1970.

Johns Hopkins University Press

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