Chair Force Engineer

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Getting out of the Business

Does NASA still need to participate in the manned spaceflight business?

NASA was formed in 1958, a unique child of the cold war. The United States had been caught unprepared by the October 1957 launch of Sputnik. While the US had the potential to co-opt the Soviets for first satellite in space, the US space program was divided and flailing. The Army, Navy and Air Force had maintained separate space programs. The nation was frightened by the implications of Sputnik, and the government believed that only a unified space effort (NASA) could ensure American technical dominance on "the high frontier" of space.

In those earlier years, the Soviets clearly had an edge in the field of launch vehicles (the story was completely reversed in the field of ballistic missiles, but that truth was suppressed in the political climate of 1960.) NASA's primary success came from establishing American dominace in the fields of manned spaceflight (arguably beginning with the Gemini 4 mission) and launch vehicles. One could argue that NASA had fulfilled its mission and reason for existence with the first moon landing in 1969.

In the post-Apollo era, NASA struggled to find direction. The shuttle program was conceived for political reasons that make little sense, even today. The space station, as proposed by President Reagan in 1984, was primarily motivated by a desire to achieve parity with the Soviet space station program and bolster unity with America's cold war allies. When the cold war ended, NASA's human spaceflight program was re-cast as a bridge between former enemies; hence, we got the shuttle-Mir program and the ISS.

Are the taxpayers being well-served by their government-administered, socialist space program? A majority of people probably don't think that the $7B spent on human spaceflight by NASA every year isn't being well-spent on a dangerous shuttle and a space station that doesn't do enough science to justify the investment.

What if there was another way to access space? What if some real-life Dagny Taggart came up with a "John Galt Spaceline" to open the space frontier to the common man? The way ahead might not be too far off. Sir Richard Branson and others are temptingly close to offering suborbital spaceflights. Some enterprising figure like Elon Musk or George French might launch a manned, orbital mission by the end of this decade. Robert Bigelow is pushing ahead with a realistic plan to build a space hotel, and even has the audacity to talk of building a lunar base.

"Space for all" used to be a fantasy. Now it's more like a waking dream, and it will shortly be a reality. Between 2010 and 2014 there will be a gap where NASA has no manned spaceflight capability and a space station of questionable value; at the same time, the private sector might have an orbital manned spacecraft and a space hotel. If the private sector has the ability to surpass NASA, why do we even bother paying NASA to launch men into space? With each passing day, it appears that the money being spent on NASA's lunar return plans would be better spent on COTS and other programs which encourage private-sector spaceflight.

A socialist space program like NASA sometimes buys us faster schedules (like getting to the moon by 1969,) at the cost of great expenditures. NASA was a necessity during the cold war, when it became necessary to match the Soviets in a "war by other means." Now that the cold war is over, NASA has been reduced to a doddering relic. Even with a new and exciting mission like returning to the moon, there's little hope that NASA will be able to meet its budget and schedule targets. The private sector will take even longer than NASA to reach the moon, but it will be assured of reaching the moon once there is a market for the moon.

The launch of the first private orbital spacecraft will be the first nail in the coffin for NASA's manned spaceflight program, as it should be. Socialist space programs should be a thing of the past. NASA will have to focus on basic aeronautical research (as it did in the old NACA days) and space sciences, including unmanned planetary probes. Spaceflight will no longer be the realm of government-appointed demigods (including the occasional homicidal astronaut.) It will be open to an ever-expanding mass of people who want to go into space not for some lofty ideal of science, but to pursue the self-interests ingrained in the human spirit.

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