Transcript: Space4U podcast, Bob Walker

Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team

Hi there, Rich Cooper with the Space Foundation. And this is the Space4U podcast, the Space Foundation’s podcast that tells the stories of the amazing people who make our adventures in space possible. I’m joined today with Bob Walker, former U.S. Congressman from Pennsylvania’s 16th congressional district.


Former chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science Space and Technology, as well as the former chairman of the Commission of the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry. Today, he is the founder of a new venture called Moonwalker Associates, where he is the founder and CEO.


In this role, he advises companies and entrepreneurs who are looking to bring new concepts and new ideas into the marketplace. Congressman Walker has also been a longtime advisor to presidents, policymakers, and industry members on space exploration and in particular, the commercial development of space.


Mr. Chairman, thank you for joining us. Delighted to be with you Rich. A lot has changed in the 50 years since the Apollo moon landing. What do you see as the biggest differences between today’s space climate than back then? It’s so much bigger back when I first went to Congress, the space program consisted of Civilian commercial and military, but they were very, very sharply defined. The commercial side was mostly people flying communication satellites, the NASA programs or the civilian programs were mostly the shuttle program at that time. Or that we were just beginning to get into the shuttle program. The polo program had ended and the military was launching a lot.


A very exquisite satellites that were the backbone of our defense establishment. Today, you have a expanding commercial sector that the military is reliant upon for remote sensing and for communications. And so you have overlaps there. You have NASA with a space station on orbit. That has been built and looking toward going back to the moon and onto Mars, you have a military sector that, uh, is using commercial launch.


They’re using commercial satellites. It’s a very different world and a much bigger world where literally billions of dollars are being invested. They do that all the time. You’ve advised presidents from Reagan to Trump on space policy. Can you give us some insight on the evolution of what you’ve told each of those leaders about the role that space can play in America’s goals?


Well, mostly my advice all the way along has been to, to invest more in commercial. And the fact is that I got. They’re very early in my career when Newt Gingrich came to the Congress and Newt saw me on the floor one day and he said, you’re on the space committee, aren’t you? And I said, you know, he said, I have an idea.


Why don’t we get some of the really young space engineers out of NASA to come in and meet with us? And he said, well, we’ll ask them one question. If you had all of the money that you could possibly use, what is it possible to do with present technology? Right. So we did this when we had these young engineers come in and we expected to spend an hour or two with them, we spend about six hours with them and they were so enthusiastic and they gave us all of these fabulous things that we were, we were capable of doing and Newt.


And I said, when we got out of that meeting, you know, the government is never going to have enough money to do all those things. So where is their, where is their money to, um, uh, do a lot of the things that we know now. They were possible. The only answer was we’ve got to have a space climate in which people are willing to invest.


And so I began to talk all the time about how we should do things that get commercial entrepreneurs to look at space and it’s taken basically 40 years. Or more to get the kind of aggressive investment that we’re seeing today. But the fact is there is far more being invested in the commercial sector now than what the government spends on, on space.


And that’s a good thing because it means that the space climate is changing in remarkable. When you sit down and you talk to presidents about that, All of them have a vision for how they see that has that vision changed dramatically. From where president Reagan was to where President Trump was looking to go.


You’ve spent a lot of time with these leaders and not everyone certainly has that opportunity, but you’ve been up close to that decision process. What’s that light. Everybody’s everybody has kind of focused on someday. We’re going to go to Mars. But the reality was that in the, in the Reagan era, what we were doing was true, trying to get people to look at building a space station.


Sadly, when I was talking to President Reagan about building a space station, we said, well, it would only cost about $8 billion, turned out to cost a hundred billion dollars for a variety of reasons, not least of which was a Congress kept interfering in the PR process, but never did. Um, that was where our focus was.


We were going to be in low earth orbit. We wanted to have, uh, a research facility in low earth orbit today. President Trump has a very much expanded vision of what we can do in space. Uh, he recognizes the power of using more and more of the commercial assets, but things that we should go back to the moon, not simply to visit the moon, but to stay there permanently and set up research and industrial processes on the moon and use that as a base to go onto Mars.


That’s a very much expanded concept from where we’ve been before. Yeah. One of the founders of what today we call the commercial space revolution as a member of Congress and leader is chair of the house science space and tech committee. You took a central leadership role in breaking down the barriers of entry for private enterprise to create access and enable the space marketplace.


What are some of the biggest challenges you faced in making those opportunities available? Probably the single biggest challenge is the fact that as the space business grew up in the us, it was seen as kind of an extension of the military industrial complex. And so the original contract. Jurors in the space were primarily the defense contractors.


As we look to have commercial take a bigger role. A lot of them were resistant on it because they had massive contracts and we’re not necessarily all that interested in having competition in what they were doing. We still have some of that today. He has, it’s kind of hard sometimes for new entrepreneurial businesses to break in because of the various space agencies of governor.


Which is still perhaps the largest customer for a space related technology. The smaller entrepreneurs can’t break through the, their traditional marketplace the way in which we did it was incremental. The very first action I offered was to change the NASA organic act to allow for. NASA to deal with commercial companies with entrepreneurial companies.


The first time I offered it along with George Brown of California, he was my co-sponsor, uh, George and I lost because NASA opposed it. And so did all their traditional contractors. The second time we offered it, we won, but we had built up some support for it. NASA today uses the language as being their reason for, um, the interaction.


Being in and utilizing the commercial sector. So from those early days, we had to fight our way through the process. Nowadays, people are beginning to realize that the commercial sector brings a lot of innovation. They bring a lot of new ideas. They bring a more efficient technologies in, in many cases.


And so now you see satellites. Instead of being huge, uh, satellites, uh, doing remarkable things. Uh, we find out that you can use smaller satellites that can be launched on smaller rockets and can do, uh, communications can do remote sensing can do all of these kinds of, of wonderful things. So it’s a very, very different proposition these days.


What are the remaining barriers that you see that need to be overcome by industry to fully capitalize and commercialize the space frontier. I think for the most part is just recognizing the potential of all of these, um, commercial technologies. The launches up is a big item and the advent of SpaceX, the advent of a Blue Origin means that we can take humans to orbit on different vehicles than those just created by government.


But beyond that, you now have small launch companies that are capable of, of putting hotels. Constellations into orbit the barrier sometimes for them to entry, because it’s hard to get the money to do these expensive kinds of things. If you don’t actually have experience in the field is probably the biggest challenge is just getting the investment money.


I work with a company at my firm. That’s looking to clean up space debris for everybody who looks at it says, yeah, this, this is a great idea for them to find though the money. Oh for the government to commit to contracts with them or for them to find money in the private sector is a, is a huge lift.


That’s still something that we’ve got to figure out a way to overcome. You talked about SpaceX, Blue Origin, and the other commercial companies. What do you see them doing really well? And what do you see that they could do better? Well, uh, what they do really well is, is develop a new one. Innovative technologies.


I mean, I was on the board of aerospace corporation for 17 years. Much of the discussion when SpaceX wanted to become a government contractor in med fly, five loads was, well, you can’t assemble rockets horizontally. Well, Elon Musk prove that you can assemble rockets horizontally. They can be successful.


And not only that, he proved that the major systems, those rockets can be made reusable, which brings down the cost substantially. You would have never thought of landing a rocket on a barge landing, a rocket on a bar or George people still Marvel to me when I’m out and around about the ballet of the two, uh, reusable boosters coming down and landing at the same time.


I mean, this is remarkable technology that the blue origin people are building very robust technology and, uh, you know, they haven’t gone to orbit with anything, but they’ve, they’re building very robust technology. They’re shepherd spacecraft. As Bates, non-human flights, but done some remarkable things.


And interesting thing about it is its design is probably the basis for them, boom, Lander. And so they’re out doing a lot of these things, very innovative things that I think have boosted the industry. If I had to give them advice as to what they need to be doing in the future, they need to really push the government hard to, um, uh, make certain that the government goes further.


Then what the government sometimes thinks that they’re capable of doing Trump administration has set a very ambitious goal of getting America back on the moon by 2024. What are the biggest obstacles to making that goal happen? The is not clear yet that the Congress has prepared to give the administration even the $1.6 billion that they’re asking for as initial down payment on the, uh, Artemis program, if Congress is not willing to.


To pay for, uh, that program that becomes a problem. You know, it’s going to cost 20 to $30 billion to do that. What we don’t seem to understand at times amongst policy makers is the payoff from that is tremendous. Yes, we’ll spend 20 or $30 billion, but if the Apollo program is any example, we will get a hundred billion dollars or more back out of it.


In, uh, technological development in new invention in all of those things that the country needs in order to maintain technological leadership. Uh, and so, uh, while it, it problem to get over that hurdle of money, the fact is that it would be a wise investment. If Congress can simply see their way clear to do it recently, you along with former house speaker, Newt Gingrich, retired air force, Lieutenant general, Steve Quast.


And Dr. Greg Autry of USC Southern California, commercial spaceflight edition of wrote an op-ed that proposed a $2 billion prize to put a permanent American presence on the moon. And Mars, tell us about that. Well, what we feel is that. There needs to be an alternative to the NASA program. If in fact the NASA program is not able to move forward.


We don’t see it as being competitive with the NASA program. What we see is, uh, an opportunity to encourage commercial companies and people with personal wealth to invest in doing the moon. Mission prizes have been used many times of the past. In fact, Newt Gingrich, and I served on a. Panel that the national science foundation put together some years ago, looking at prizes as a, as a way to encourage scientific development.


And again, we both came away with the idea that this was, uh, something that really is a potential for moving the ball forward in remarkable ways. So what we’ve said is. Let’s look at this as an alternative way of getting to the moon, uh, in the timeframe that the administration has specified. There’s no doubt that we’ll get back to the moon.


At some point NASA’s previous program suggested it would be 2028, uh, that they would be able to do it using the technology that they’re developing when the vice president suggested it needed to move it forward. You had caused some consternation within NASA, and they’re still struggling with how they’re going to be able to.


Well to utilize their plan and move it forward that quickly. Our belief is that if you have another way of proceeding, that what you’ll get out of that is the beginning of some developments that NASA, otherwise wouldn’t even look at because they’re focused on only the program that they have in mind.


And so our view is that having something. The thing that the country can do. Uh, if the Artemis program doesn’t get funded by the Congress is, um, a positive step for the nation. You talked about the NSF panel that you and the speaker were a part of. Are you looking at models like the in, sorry. X prize or the, the Ortega prize, which Charles Limburg one are those things, the models that we’re looking at here, those are similar.


And remember on the X prize, the fact is that Paul Allen in winning that prize probably spent five times the amount that the prize was worth. And that’s the history of prices is that people see the prestige of winning the prize as being more important than the money that’s being offered for the prize.


And what you get is remarkable development and the Wittenberg showing that you could actually fly across the Atlantic nonstop, totally changed the whole mindset about what we could do with airplanes. So whatever. The monetary prize was he won. It was worth billions, hundreds of billion over the next 50 or 60 years.


So there’s a multiplier effect in prizes that makes the initial investment, a small part of what you get out. You mentioned two of the successes there, Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic and Paul Allen and the composites team who won the X prize. What does success look like with what you’re offering here?


Because this isn’t just a. Touch the moon or touch Mars and come back. This is staying. Is that a six-month deployment? Is that a year? What is the finish line on it? So I think what we believe is that if we have to use that as an alternative, that the prize will really be for the first commercial company to actually land people on the moon and bring them back.


That you won’t go and stay on that first flight did what to and so on. And the question is whether or not we split it into two prizes, one a billion dollars for getting to the moon and landing and doing it within the timeframe that the president and the vice-president have specified. And then another billion dollars for those who go and establish a more permanent presence.


So we don’t have a precise definition at this point, we’ve offered, uh, a concept. At the end of the day, what we want to do is make certain that there’s technology that permits you to go to the moon. And we believe now that once the technology is there, did you will go to stay because the competition from China and other nations, it has made it a very important part of our national prestige and our national security to make certain that we do have a permanent presence on the moon.


You talked about the impact that these prizes have both historical, cultural and technological. Why do you think we don’t use the prize model more often? Well, in part, because, uh, it is hard under the, our appropriation system in government to put the money forward and you have to have some very, very rich people to support a prize if the government said not coming up with it.


And so it’s mostly a case of finding. You need the right combination to get it done. I mean, the X prize was based upon inability to raise the $20 million to make it real. When you start talking about going to the moon, can’t do it for $20 million. The fact is you have to offer a prize big enough that people think that it’s serious.


That really means something. And so when you start talking about billions, then the government appropriations process does have some difficulties connected with it. However they pay attention. More zeroes is what you’re saying. Yeah. Well, and you know, I think we believe that if it appears there’s that NASA can’t meet the presidential schedule, that then it is possible to go to the Congress and say, this is going to be over a period of four years, you know, can’t you find sufficient money over that period of time to make certain that the prize is available for somebody who goes and probably has spent at that point far more than the, what the prize is.


It’s contemplated as costing. You mentioned about international competition, uh, in preparing for the conversation with here, I was reminded of the classic ‘77, uh, SciFi blockbuster Close Encounters of the Third Kind that spawned the phrase. We are not alone. And that’s certainly true when it comes to international competition that Russia, China, India, and others are ramping up their ambitions for the moon, as well as Mars. What’s your guidance to your former colleagues in Congress and the Trump administration on securing American leadership, both from a national and economic security perspective?


Well, look, I mean, the competition with China is very real. The Russian economy will not support a tremendous program, but the fact is that Russia and China. Are cooperating in some of the instances here, and India has a very strong ambition to go. At least with India, we are in Alliance with them. We understand that they have ambitions, but they’re not far enough along now to establish a permanent human presence.


There, a permanent human presence on the moon is so much like the permanent human presence that we established at the South pole. It’s done for. Strategic reasons it is done for the proposition that if you’re not there, somebody else is going to be there and they are going to begin to exploit the potentials that are there, the water ice.


There could be a very important thing. If we believe that we can, uh, get to fusion power at some point, the helium three that’s available in large quantities on the moon. There are real reasons for doing a permanent presence. There, there are universal. Who believe that the research that can be done on the moon and it’s lower gravity and a whole bunch of other attributes would be very important research looking into the future, which of the countries that you just talked about.


Do you see as our biggest space competitor showing them China has a very ambitious program. And, um, one of the reasons why the president’s date of 2024 is important is because. Probably allow us to get there before China, but by late in this decade, in late in the decade of the twenties, the Chinese will be there, whether we are or not.


We’re on the Eve of another election year. Presidential and congressional, do you see space as an issue in this coming election cycle? Well, I don’t think it will be a huge issue. I think that there are other things that will probably rise above space, but sadly it’s becoming somewhat of a partisan issue at the present time.


I mean, part of the reasons why Congress is having trouble getting the 1.6 billion to move the Artemis program forward is because the Democrats are resisting it on the Hill and they’re resisting it because. It’s president Trump’s program. So that’s a concern. The great reason why we may have at least some interest in space will be because you have space-related areas of the country now.


Well, which are important political, uh, assets, for example, of the space coast of Florida. If you’re going to carry Florida as a Republican, particularly you need to have a big vote come out of this space. East coast. One of the reasons why I ended up writing a space policy program for the Trump campaign back in 2016 was because they didn’t have one.


And Trump was going down to speak on the space coast and they needed one. So I get a call from Trump tower that says, we need a space program. And we’re told you’re the one to write it. And I said, well, I suppose I can probably do that. Uh, you know, give me a couple of weeks and I’ll come up with something as though you have 48 hours.


So, I mean, I wrote the Walker space program and I ran it up Trump tower to came back down and they said, we need to make one change. And I said, okay, what’s that? And he said, well, you didn’t put hypersonics in there. I said, that was a mistake. It should have been in there. I that’s fine with me. So that’s what they used.


And then for the Trump space policy and the speech that he made on the base code, he did very well in the space coast and helping him to carry a Florida. So in there I put things like. Recreation of the national space council and a bunch of stuff that they have gone ahead and done. So in that sense, there are places Houston, Texas is, is another place where Huntsville, Alabama, where there are space communities that have.


A prominent role to play in carrying those States in a presidential campaign, it can’t be ignored. It doesn’t mean that it will be one of the preeminent issues though. You talk about space council. Do you talk about the role of Congress and we’re, we are a little bit of a stalemate. And as you mentioned, spaces, traditionally been a pretty bipartisan cooperative effort.


You talked about your relationship with George Brown and moving forward, the changes to NASA’s charter. How do we get there? Back to that bi-partisan bed. Well, look, I think there still is a good deal of it. Bipartisanship on the space program, writ large, there still is a lot of common interest in things like putting weather satellites on orbit of expanding the role for things like remote sensing.


There’s a, still a good deal of bipartisanship that shows up on this, but the moon program has become identified as a. The Trump program and the emotions are running so high on Capitol Hill these days, that it’s kind of hard to get past that reality, but we’ll see where it goes. I think the space council has been a very successful thing.


I think that vice president Pence has done a great job of making that. Into a vital part of pulling together the military commercial and civilian pieces of the space program. And what’s particularly impressive by me. And this was here. This was the vice-president. My understanding is they went to him early on in the formation of the space council and said to him, we’ll have private meetings and we’ll work out all of these things in space.


He says, no, they’re not going to be any private meetings. We’re holding public meetings and we’re holding them every quarter and every quarter. Agencies will come in and they will report to us on what they have done to move the space program forward. And then you put that together with the presidential directives, they’ve had to come in and report on what they’re doing to accomplish the presidential directors.


They have to do it in public and these cabinet secretaries and administrators and all these people don’t want to be embarrassed in public by saying, well, we didn’t get much accomplished this last quarter. And so. The vice-president, this was the Vice-President’s initiative. And he was absolutely right, because that has proven to be a way of assuring that the push forward is constant.


I’ve known you long enough to know of your admiration for your friend, legendary race car driver, Mario Andretti. And I actually had to correct somebody who used the famous Andretti quote and they were quoting you as saying it. But I’ve known you long enough to know that you’ve said it an awful lot, that it’s attributed to both of you and that quote, being, if everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough. End of quote, how does that. Quote applied to, uh, today’s space community.


Well, look, it applies broadly across the technology community and Ben, particularly the space community. The world is moving so fast these days, and the development of technology is moving so fast at the moment. You think you have your arms wrapped up.


Around something. And if you’ve got control of it, the fact is that there’s somebody coming up on your really, really fast. And so if you look around the world and see the rapid rate of technical development, if you see the rapid rate at which new concepts in space are being developed, that in places like India, New Zealand, all over the world, there are people.


Who have space ambitions at the present time. If we continue to kind of sit on our laurels and say to everybody, well, of course, we’re the space leaders. We went to the moon that was 50 years ago in 50 years, the world has changed in remarkable ways. And particularly the space program has changed in remarkable ways.


And. It means that other people are taking all of those things that we’ve learned over that 50 years and applying them in ways that they will leapfrog us and get ahead of us if we don’t continue to push forward. So, um, Mario’s my favorite Pennsylvania philosopher because of that quote. He’s absolutely right.


And it describes the business and technological world in which we now live. You mentioned creating the Walker space plan. Let’s create the Walker space mission. You’ve met a lot of people who have developed. Number of different systems to do any number of things, but if you could plan a space mission of your own, what would it be and where are you going?


Well, for me, if I was planning and was thinking about the fact that I’m 76 years old and probably am not going to get to, to Europa or Titan, then I have to say that just going to orbit and being able to see the world from the perspective that our astronauts see, it would be. Thrill of my lifetime.


It’s remarkable to think that we as humans have a perspective that no one else in the whole history of humankind as a been able to see. So, so if I had to design my own mission, it would be to go out and, uh, look back at earth and understand what a remarkable place we have, where we live. If I’m being in the fantasy world, Europa, Titan would be where I would hit. Well for your orbital piece. I think Richard Branson, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos would be happy to sell you a ticket. Yeah, I’m sure they would have whether or not it’s affordable. I’m not sure making it affordable. And it all comes down to the market. Share the market will bear.


Uh, Mr. Chairman, thank you for your time. Thank you for your insight, as well as your service to the space community. This is Rich Cooper with the Space Foundation. Who’s had the pleasure of sitting here with former Congressman Bob Walker, who as you have heard in this podcast has been involved with a lot of our space history, but is even more vested in making more of that history.


Uh, he really does work to make space for all. And that’s going to conclude this episode of the Space Foundation’s Space4U podcast. Keep your eyes and ears open for more episodes by checking out our social media outlets on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. And of course our website at on all those outlets and more it’s our goal to inspire, educate, connect, and advocate. For the space community because of the Space Foundation, we will always have space for you. Thank you for listening.

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Space4U Podcast: Bob Walker, Space Policy Advisor