An Interesting Take On President Bush’s Space Proposal

Economist.com | America’s space programme: Pie in the sky: America’s space agency is to return to the moon. Not everyone is happy about this.
I’m not sure I agree with this, but it’s interesting. NASA has had much more success with its scientific missions than with putting people in space lately. The International Space Station (ISS) might have an actual use as a docking station for shuttles so they don’t have to leave and re-enter the atmosphere as much — the most dangerous part. The idea of having a base on the moon is appealing as well.

Even so, The Economist’s idea about limiting NASA to scientific ventures — like the Mars rovers — has merit. They just don’t address how private programs will actually let people “slip the surly bonds of Earth”. Instead they stop right at the edge of the atmosphere.

LOSING the shuttle Columbia, and its crew of seven astronauts, was a serious blow to America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). As with all mishaps of this scale, it caused a great deal of navel-gazing. One result was an excoriating report, last year, on the way the agency works. The second was President George Bush’s announcement on January 14th that America will return to the moon, and prepare for trips further afield in the solar system.

Mr Bush announced merely the broad brush-strokes of his “vision”. The details will be painted in later. But anyone who is thrilled by the idea of an extended return to the moon would do well to remember that in 1989, on the 20th anniversary of the first moon landing, Mr Bush’s father, then president, announced something rather similar. Cost estimates for that plan turned out to be so astronomical ($400 billion) that Congress quickly buried the idea.

[….]

One might expect space enthusiasts to be thrilled about a return to the moon. Perhaps they would be in different circumstances, but not under the current management. The Space Frontier Foundation is an organisation “dedicated to opening the space frontier to human settlement as rapidly as possible”. But as news of the plan leaked out, it warned that NASA was “bloated, inflexible, self-indulgent and lives on the re-runs of its better days”. The agency can only succeed, said the foundation, with the involvement of the private sector, handing over the baton at the right moment.

That could yet happen. For even now, dozens of teams of entrepreneurs are racing with each other to build a working spacecraft with relatively small sums of money and no help from the government. They are competing for what is known as the X-Prize, a $10m reward for the first craft capable of taking tourists into space. That may sound like pie in the sky, but last month one of the contenders took a test craft to supersonic speeds. It was the first manned supersonic flight by a craft developed by a truly private effort.

Even on today’s calculations, a little bit of space tourism looks to be worthwhile. Hundreds of people have already put down cash deposits for a trip to the edge of space with a company called Space Adventures, of Arlington, Virginia. This firm (which already arranges $20m journeys to the space station, on board Russia’s Soyuz craft) is offering trips with whichever X-Prize contender first starts commercial operations. These trips ($100,000 each, in case you want to join in) will take passengers to the edge of space, rather than all the way into orbit. But space tourists will still experience weightlessness, see the Earth from a rather special vantage point, and qualify as astronauts.

This is not exactly a grandiose vision compared with a manned base on the moon. But it is a more realistic one and, if successful, it can be built upon. NASA has done great things, of the sort that private enterprise would not and should not cough up for, with its unmanned scientific space missions. It should concentrate on those and leave the business of putting people into space to business itself.

I’m all in favor of the commercialization of space, I just don’t see why it can’t go hand-in-hand with NASA’s efforts.

No comments yet.

Leave a Comment