Friday, September 24, 2010

The Private Sector in Space

Check out this rundown of the burgeoning companies who want to get in on the private space industry, courtesy of NBC.  

President Obama's plan for the future of NASA has been controversial, to say the least.  Amazingly, his plan has received considerable attention in the media, and it seems like just about everyone -- informed and uninformed alike -- has weighed in.  I say 'amazingly' because by and the large the American public, or at least the powers that be, really haven't seemed to care much about our manned spaceflight since 1972, except when there has been a tragedy.  True, we like seeing our astronauts wave hello to the Colbert Nation, or wave hello to a classroom of school kids, or wave hello to Wolf Blitzer.  But the enthusiasm and can-do optimism that carried men to the Moon largely evaporated in the wake of the Moon race, and has never really come back. 

It may have been inevitable.  The public interest waned, Mars was considerably more difficult to reach, and maintaining expenditures at the level of the 1960s was impossible to justify.  There was really no need to keep pushing a manned project of that magnitude, anyway, now that we had beaten the Russians to the Moon.  But we knew the Soviets were working on space stations for the purpose of spying on the United States, so yet again our space ambitions were tempered, or driven, by our national security interests.  We put up Skylab with the leftover parts from the Apollo program, and Nixon authorized construction of the Space Shuttle.  And now, almost forty years later, we're still hanging out exclusively in Earth's orbital parking lot.  It's funny how time flies.

Manned spaceflight today, shuttling to and from low-Earth orbit, is not exactly routine.  But it is in the minds of most Americans.  Which is why I was somewhat puzzled by all the negative reactions to President Obama's plan.  (Curiously, the critics of the President's plan have not advocated a dramatic increase in NASA's budget, which might preclude the need for a shuffling of priorities).  

There are several facets to the plan, of course.  Part of it calls for more money to go to unmanned science missions... the kinds of missions that have shown us some of the most dazzling sights of our solar system, and revealed all kinds of wonders in the depths of interstellar and intergalactic space.  Part of it calls for building a spacecraft that can take us much deeper into space, to land astronauts on an asteroid (an unimaginable journey!), and then on to Mars.  But the part that has been most controversial is the plan to farm out these "routine" orbital missions to private companies.

The apprehension is understandable, but it's not necessarily warranted.
  Look at all these companies revving up and ready to go!  If the whole plan were to rely on one or two companies for these space taxi services, that might be reason for concern (although, that's essentially what we'll be doing when we pay the Russians for a ride up to the ISS after the retirement of the Space Shuttle).  But with all these groups getting into the game and ready to compete for contracts, a whole new industry is taking shape, so there's no reason to think that we can't fly these missions at a lower cost, and help stimulate the next phase of our space exploration at the same time.  Private sector involvement is the next logical step in the progression of technology... first the government develops it, when costs are prohibitive, and then the private sector comes in and makes it cheaper and more consumer-friendly.  Such was the evolution of the internet, and communications satellites.

Change can be painful, and there may be some jobs lost, or shifted elsewhere.  Some of those technicians who work for NASA and have a vested interest in the status quo may have to relocate.  There is some risk of a brain drain, whereby the expertise gained over 50 years of spaceflight is lost in the transition.  But these sorts of changes are inevitable, and should not be reason to restrict progress.  Inevitably, the demand for equine accessories dropped off dramatically when the automobile became mainstream.  Ocean liners had to adjust their business models when trans-Atlantic air travel became routine.  And one day, we hope, the demand for oil and coal will decline radically as we transition to a clean energy economy.  As sympathetic as we may be to the hardships endured by those working in a withering or antiquated market, we just can't allow that to stifle our progress overall. 

Hopefully, though, the NASA engineers won't be out of job.  There will still be a need for their expertise in the private sector.  So we probably shouldn't worry too much about them.

Of course, this whole thing could turn out to be a total disaster, especially since Congress has a peculiar talent for turning good ideas into horribly misguided policies.  But let's all just take a breath and see how it goes.  If things don't go as planned, we can always go back and do it the old way.

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