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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