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It Is Long Past Time for Space Exploration to Go Private

February 3rd, 2010 By: Michael Merritt
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While NASA mourns the loss of the Constellation program and the planned return to the moon, the space organization today announced five companies that will be awarded contracts to build commercial vehicles and the systems that will support them.  Frankly, I think this announcement couldn’t have come soon enough.

Lets face it, not much has happened in the way of space in the last…oh…38 years or so.  Sure, there’s the International Space Station, but that project is unfortunately doomed to failure.  It should have been completed years ago, but the Columbia tragedy prevented that.  After that, nobody really wanted to use a transportation system that was already old when the ISS was in its infancy.  Now the life of the station is being extended, so that it can all be torn down at about the time the last piece is put in place.  If the ISS is all we have to show in progress, than I argue that America has not gone very far since the last time we put a man on the moon (1972).

The Cold War is over, so there is nothing to influence American competitiveness for space anymore, at least not one that matters to the government.  The said, why not invite companies to do the R&D needed to get humans back to the moon, or beyond?

Companies compete everyday.  They must, or else they do not last long.  They don’t need a global conflict to ensure their innovation.  And that innovation is already happening, with companies like Bigelow Airspace, Scaled Composites, and SpaceX well on their well to making commercial space travel a reality.  Bigelow has already launched two habitation prototypes based on the Transhab project that was canceled by Congress in 2000.  Scaled Composites is known for their SpaceShipOne prototype, and SpaceShipTwo sub-orbital ship that billionaire Richard Branson is looking to someday buy for his planned Virgin Galactic fleet.  And SpaceX was one of the companies selected two years ago, along with Orbital Sciences Corporation, to create unmanned ships for work on the ISS.

With Boeing, Sierra Nevada, Blue Origin, and Paragon Space Development joining the companies listed above, the industry is now chock full of players either teamed up with NASA for ISS and astronaut-type missions, and/or looking to get into the space tourism field.  A NASA researched, designed, and built project just seems redundant in this case, doesn’t it?

I know that one reaction will be the inevitable “BUT, THEY ONLY WANT TO PROFIT!!!”  Sure they do, and why shouldn’t they?  It will, in fact, be that motivation for profit that ensures companies come out with not only the best designed and functioning product for this generation of space vehicles, but the next.  That’s how it works, folks.  Every company wants to be known as the creator of the latest and greatest in their field, so that they can capture the most profit.  That goal of being the leader will eventually lead Americans (and more broadly, humanity) to low-earth orbit and beyond.

That last sentence may seem idealistic of me, but I’m not so sure.  If you told someone in the late 1960s about the current state of computing, when they were by and large developed by government and academia, they probably wouldn’t have believed you.  But here we are in 2010, and it’s all thanks to the competitive nature of the companies that took the time to develop the best technology.

Now extend this to space travel.  I don’t pretend that we’ll be visiting Mars tomorrow, or even in 10 years, but I could easily see something like that happening within 20 years if space travel companies are allowed to take the reigns developing the next generation of space vehicles and associated technology.  It will happen because the companies involved in researching how to do it will have a profit motivation to make it happen as quickly as possible, or else get left in the dust by the guys who did it first.

I believe that the development of space exploration technologies will be part of the solution to restore the economy.  The growth of this new industry will help us recover from the shrinking of others, like the car industry, that have been victims of the recession.  I don’t know the specifics of what it takes to manufacturer a space vehicle, but I’ll venture that at least some of the same skills needed to build a car are required to build a line of ships for the likes of Virgin Galactic.  There will be some retraining necessary, of course, but that was inevitable.

More than that, there is still a real need for America to show its leadership in space exploration, and its status has been challenged of late due to lack of motivation.  A bustling space exploration industry is the answer to keeping America the leader in the final frontier.  So Obama’s decision to cancel the moon program and defer development of exploration technologies to the private sector could not have come at a better time.  I, for one, applaud him for the decision, and look forward to seeing what develops in the coming years and decades.

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  1. Nelson Bridwell

    February 3rd, 2010 at 08:50

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    #1

    Michael:

    Although certinaly a large government agency like NASA is not the most inexpensive way to do anything, private industry does not always have such a stellar track record.

    Every heard of the term cost-overrun, particualry in relation to government contractors?

    Have any idea what a B-2 costs us? $1,300,000,000.00

    That's right. More than one billion dolars per aircraft.

    Wishffully thinking that privately manufactured spacecraft are going to be cheap? Think again!

    Think that privately manfactured spacecraft are going to get us into space faster?

    Ever heard of the Lockheed X-33 Venturestar? It never made it past the wind tunnel, let alone the launching pad.

    Which is not to say that private space will not be faster or cheper that NASA. Only time will tell.

    Cheers,

    Nelson


  2. Doomed

    February 3rd, 2010 at 13:42

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    #2

    http://www.thespaceplace.com/nasa/spinoffs.html

    I am a huge fan of space exploration. Its our only hope to a future because sometime in the future Mother Earth is going to experience a Extinction Level Event in which mankind is not expected to survive.

    But I also am a realist. We have to cut spending. Im willing to cut Nasa to the bone in order to balance the budget. I am willing to cut my own social security and medicare. These are tough choices in tough times. But if we do not cut spending, balance the budget and pay down this monsterous debt then America will be no more.

    The Alinsky Model is to create a crisis…….Obama and his progressive congressional loons are creating the greatest crisis in mankind and THEN…..and THEN……and THEN blaming it on BUSH who has been gone for over a year now……..And THEN blaming Bush for having to put us another 3 trillion in debt in 2 years without even fixing the economy because everyone knows that you do not run a 100 trillion dollar economy with a 3 trillion dollar GOVERNMENT.

    AMERICANS run AMERICA.

    Its time to vote everyone of these Sons of Beaches out of office. LEFT, RIGHT and CENTER and start over.

    Please…..if your a democrat or a republican or and independent or a libertarian…….VOTE FOR THE NON ENCUMBENT in 2010. Lets put Bipartisan, responsible human beings in charge of our piggy bank.

    Please.


  3. Kevin Havre

    February 3rd, 2010 at 17:10

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    #3

    I like to tone of your article, and am also a fan of commercializing space. NASA should focus on R&D and taking the first “small step” in any “giant leaps”; commercial companies need to see a viable business model before they invest in new markets, and NASA has been a key player in “launching” those new markets. Time to establish assured access to space and then move on to reliable systems for long-term space travel. And, don’t forget the work they do for the aviation industry; new technology for more efficient vehicles, and the next generation for air traffic control.

    I do have a problem with your characterization of ISS; this budget DOES extend the life of our new National Laboratory (the Columbus Module), and lays the ground-work for sustaining support (crew and cargo delivery) into the future.. It also assures the infrastructure for our partners labs will be sustained, so they can see a return on their investment.

    Please do not write off the ISS yet; better to figure out how to build and maintain long-duration life support systems in LEO! I would hate to have to radio up to a Mars mission: “So sorry, the waste recycling system cannot be fixed, you will run out of water before you even get to Mars, and oxygen shortly there-after. Turing off the radios now so we do not have to listen to the screams, buh-bye!”


  4. jake

    February 3rd, 2010 at 19:05

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    #4

    Have any idea what a Boeing 747 costs? I just did a quick search, about 300 million.

    Now, have any idea what a ticket for a ride on one costs?

    Spacecraft don’t have be affordable, just the cost to ride on one. Sure it may take a while, but you got to start somewhere.


  5. redfish

    February 3rd, 2010 at 19:19

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    #5

    I think its good that space exploration is opened up to the private sector, but I think the government needs to provide the infrastructure for that, or help in providing the infrastructure. That’s no different than, say, the government helping build infrastructure down here on Earth.

    As I understand the Constellation program, the idea wasn’t to replicate the Apollo program, but goal was to create a transit system that would allow frequent shuttles from the space station tot he moon, eventually to help create a base there. That would be a good example of how the government could build infrastructure, because the private companies would then use that transit system to start building industry on the moon. As would start to get profit, they could build their own shuttles.

    Instead of an analogy between computers and spacecraft, think of an analogy between the Internet and a space transit system. Or the beginnings of a rail system in the late 19th century. Although a lot of rail was privately developed, a lot of the longer rail lines were constructed during the Civil War for the purpose of carrying troops and supplies, and the Pan-Pacific railroad, meant to join the two sides of the continent, was created with the help of a government loan.

    Throwing away any grand public initiatives, in my opinion, will do more to stall private development than anything.


  6. Michael_Merritt

    February 4th, 2010 at 00:10

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    #6

    Doomed, your posts always start out great, but then almost always devolve into “alinsky this, alinsky that” and “vote out all the idiots!” While I am at least in slight agreement with that last point, I don’t go around spamming it in every single comment I make! It just becomes tiring after a while seeing it in every comment on here.

    I think you’re right on the need for exploration, but not just because of the next big extinction event, but something guaranteed to happen much more quickly: overpopulation. Resources will be strained to the max as we get closer to 10 billion people. We’ll need to spread out in order to stave off mass starvation and death by disease and limit the side effects of these things (wars for natural resources, etc).

    More than that, I just wanna see space, dammit! Or ensure that the next generation can.


  7. Michael_Merritt

    February 4th, 2010 at 00:22

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    #7

    NASA should focus on R&D and taking the first “small step” in any “giant leaps”

    You’re right. I didn’t put it in the article, but I’m in favor of the partnership model that currently exists between NASA and private corps. The private corps will get us to space, and NASA will figure out how to survive once we’re there.

    And you’re also right that NADS is a great launching point for new markets. As I pointed out, Bigelow Airspace actually purchased the rights to a previously canceled project and launched a couple habitation prototypes. I wonder if the rights to the current work on the Constellation program will go up for sale…

    I think the ISS is an important project, but work on its completion is going far too slowly. The original decommissioning year was to be 2015/2016, and plans are only to extend it another five years or so. Neither year is that far away when you think about it. I’m not writing it off, per se, but I think future stations need to made to stay up for a longer time relative to their cost.


  8. Doomed

    February 4th, 2010 at 03:34

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    #8

    I agree MM. The problem continues to be a country that was once pretty powerful drowning in a sea of debt.

    I am On the Alinsky bandwagon non stop because their is no other message that Americans can grasp then Showing the need for fiscal responsibility. All other problems are insignificantly trivial in comparrison to the 800 billion a year in INTEREST just on the debt.

    800 billion.

    Sorry but we as a nation must focus on solving our financial CRACK habits. We as a nation are on mind altering drugs if we think we can keep this up. Im not Young MM. I will not live to see the demise of this country.

    YOU just might. I fight for YOU and those like you. I never stop.

    Forgive me for being annoying. MY agenda is simple and out in the open…..we are fast going broke….we need to fix it…Theres no cover up, no hidden science….no twisting of facts……it is what it is.

    Space might be the final frontier but I suggest we will never get their if we become so burdened by debts and IOU’s that we have to tax corporations out the ying yang to pay for our CRACK habit. Those corporations will find little incentive to go to the moon if their is no money in it and a Government unwilling and unable to PAY them to go.


  9. Michael_Merritt

    February 4th, 2010 at 06:18

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    #9

    Maybe people will use space exploration as a means to get away from their oppressive, tax-burdening government, to set up colonies away from all that non-sense.

    It’s the Firefly scenario, see?

    Wait…but then the oppressive government tries to force the outlying colonies to join with them, resulting in a war that kills millions. In the end, it results in a system of quasi-autonomous planets that must bow to said government.

    Oh well. I’m sure it will seem to be a good idea at the time.







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