I was born on the seventh anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s historic moonwalk, which may or may not have something to do with my lifelong love of aviation. I have fond memories from my childhood of sitting in front of the television completely captivated by network news coverage of the launch of the Space Shuttle. Now, I’m not even certain that the 24-hour cable networks cover launches anymore. Sadly, for a shuttle mission to make front-page news these days, it has to end in tragedy. How times have changed.
But in a very central way, times have not changed. Do you find it odd that nearly 25 years after the first launch of the Shuttle, we are now awaiting the tentative return to space of that same, 1970′s era vehicle? Is it not strange that 36 years after setting foot on the surface of the moon, NASA is now satisfied with making occasional hops into low earth orbit in what amounts to a glorified pickup truck?
NASA, it seems, has become risk-averse – which is a bad thing for an agency tasked with space exploration to be. They are, after all, engaged in an inherently risky endeavor. The Wall Street Journal notes in an editorial today (subscription required) that the Space Administration has fallen victim to the same bloated and inefficient bureaucratic mentality to which most government agencies eventually succumb:
One example of NASA’s current sluggishness is its “request for proposals” for private-sector contracts for the Crew Exploration Vehicle, which is slated to replace the space shuttle. According to space historian Robert Zimmerman, winning contractors will have to submit 129 reports and tangle with a snarl of other red tape. Minority hiring, small business support and outreach in public education have nothing to do with cutting edge research, but they found their way into the application process. Winners will also be expected to maintain a company program for drug and alcohol abuse. The result, says Mr. Zimmerman, is to discourage “some of the more innovative and smaller new aerospace companies.”
President Bush may want America to put a man on Mars, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that NASA isn’t going to be the group to get us there. Notes MIT scientist Edward Crawley:
It’s been almost 30 years since we built a new launch system. There is an enormous difference between the skills the nation had during Apollo and now. You have working at NASA now … a generation that has never built a rocket.
But there is hope, and that hope is seated firmly in the private sector. It comes from people like Burt Rutan, owner of Scaled Composites. Rutan is the aviation genius who designed the Voyager (the first aircraft to fly around the world non-stop and without refueling), and SpaceShipOne, the first successful privately funded spacecraft in history. Rutan envisions a more market-oriented approach to space exploration:
Once “the revenue business begins it will likely fly as many as 500 astronauts the first year,” he told Congress last month. “By the 12th year of operations 50,000 to 100,000 astronauts will have enjoyed that black sky view.”
And the force driving this whole project?
“This process is going to be all driven by commercial competition and those folks are going to be willing to take the risks in order to get market share.”
It may take some time, but I’d be willing to wager that the next person we see leaving footprints on the surface of some heavenly body won’t be wearing a NASA patch on their shoulder. It’s far more likely to be an associate of Mr. Rutan or someone like him.