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Following Up on John Doerr: The Private Sector in Space

Last week I noted venture capitalist John Doer’s presentation to the National Governors Association on Green Technology as a paradigm for the school improvement industry. Doer described the problem – part of which is an entrenched petroleum industry, the technology potential, and what government needs to do to make investment attractive to the private sector.

I heard Doerr’s presentation on CSPAN radio. As I was driving into town for the first day of the Education Industry Association’s annual Washington policy meeting that station delivered up something else worth listening to – The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Space Aeronautics and Related Sciences hearing on NASA’s FY 2009 budget proposal.

My advice is to listen to the hearing as background while you do your desk work. Roughly 24 minutes into the session, Dr. Michael Griffin, NASA Administrator and the committee members begin to discuss the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services Project, known as COTS. “The key objectives of the program are to facilitate U.S. private industry development of reliable, cost effective access to low Earth orbit and to create a market environment in which commercial space transportation services are available to government and private sector customers.” (NASA). The exchange lasts about an hour.

What’s to be learned from listening to this? Government-funded NASA is on the verge of loosing our capacity to transport men and cargo back and forth from earth to space. (We already depend on Russia for critical transportation - including emergency and escape activities for the International Space Station.) NASA is managing the contracts with what are in effect, private sector competitors to perform that function. Politics plays a big role in this field. Investor interest depends on what the Congress legislates, the White House makes a priority, and the Agency’s day–to–day decision making. Sound familiar?

As with the Doerr presentation, edbizbuzz readers should listen to this hearing 1) for its pattern rather than its content, and 2) to appreciate that politicians are quite familiar with the class of problem school improvement providers are bringing to the table. The industry’s task is to frame its challenge as a problem like Green Technology or COTS, rather than allowing it to be cast as "when will you stop taking money from the mouths of babes?" But as I’ve noted many times before, it’s much easier to use the former frame if you’ve got the evaluation data to back it up.

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