NASA vs. the free market: Which is better for American space dominance?

spacex takeoff private spaceflightOne of my heroes died last weekend.

Neil Armstrong’s passing shook me — have we really been lunar for so long? — but what disturbs me even more is how negatively he and several other prominent astronauts regard private spaceflight visionaries like Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Bob Richards. While frowned upon by yesterday’s heroes, these fledgling entrepreneurs hold the greatest hope for future spacefarers and moonwalkers.

After NASA suffered severe budget cuts in 2010, Armstrong voiced his opposition, casting doubt on the ability of private ventures to successfully take to the stars. In a letter that didn’t receive nearly as much attention as it should have, Armstrong, along with James Lovell and Eugene Cernan — Apollo 13’s commander and the last man on the moon, respectively — suggested that the death of the government shuttle program and the rise of privatized space flight could spell an end to U.S. dominance in the wild black yonder.

“I support the encouragement of the newcomers toward their goal of lower-cost access to space,” Armstrong told Congress in 2010. “But having cut my teeth in rockets more than 50 years ago, I am not confident.”

Are Neil and his cohorts correct? Does an increasing reliance on commercial shuttles leave the United States “on a long downhill slide to mediocrity”?

Actually, increasing the role of private spaceflight ventures should only enhance America’s dominance in the sky… and like it or not, the NASA of the past is not the NASA of the future.

Staring at the past through rose-tinted visors

With all due respect to Armstrong, Lovell and Cernan, relying on the government to propel humankind into space carries too much uncertainty. After America won the space race, enthusiasm seemed to fizzle out; Cernan’s final journey to the moon took place all the way back in 1972. That was a full 40 years ago. Four. Zero.

Exploring the final frontier simply isn’t a high priority for politicians in a time when economic uncertainty runs rampant and unemployment rates remain floating at high levels. That’s not to say that NASA should be neglected, but its budget ebbs and flows with the public whim. NASA’s funds have been (mostly) shrinking since the 1960s and currently stand at around 0.05 percent of the overall Federal budget. Taking inflation into account, the agency’s 2012 budget is only half of what it was in Apollo’s heyday.

curiosity rover mars explorerOr, to put dwindling government focus on space exploration another way: funding the Curiosity rover cost $2.5 billion. The 2012 Olympics cost $15 billion.

Despite its monetary pains, NASA still holds a vital leadership role, and opening the door to commercial ventures could actually thrust us into space much faster we could reach the stars through government-funded initiatives alone.

Commercial space experts chime in

While Armstrong and co. see the shutdown of the space shuttle program as a major blow against U.S. interests, others say that shifting basic logistics to private ventures frees up NASA to do what it does best.

Bob Richards is the co-founder of the International Space University and Moon Express, a company that hopes to win the Google Lunar X Prize and one day mine the moon for rare-earth resources.

“The commercial space industry stand on the shoulders of a giant called NASA,” Richards told me via email. “All of us in entrepreneurial space companies were and continue to be awed and inspired by NASA’s accomplishments on new frontiers, and its research at the boundaries of human knowledge. That’s where NASA excels.

“Moon Express is not only inspired, but enabled by NASA’s technology and its willingness to partner with the private sector in areas of mutual value and economic development. Transportation is the low-hanging fruit for NASA’s innovative partnerships with private industry; not meaning that it’s easy, (but) meaning that it makes the most sense because it’s a repetitive need better done by industry. As a first order rule, if it needs to be done once, that’s a government opportunity; if it needs to be done repetitively, that’s a business opportunity.”

Christopher Altman, the Chief Science Officer of Astronauts for Hire and an alumnus of Starlab, a deep future research institute, agrees. “National space programs are a more natural fit to spearhead long-term exploration, where profits aren’t yet realistic or viable for commercial endeavors,” he says. “A coherent national program can advance the frontier for companies to step in once the field is robust enough to support their development.”

The invisible hand in undiscovered land

The open market drives innovation in a way that the government can never hope to mimic. Untapped deep-space mineral riches and the willingness of NASA and large private companies to pay big dollars for private space ferries has led to an explosion of space-related ventures that are innovating at a rapid rate, hoping to hit the great big payoff in the sky. Elon Musk’s SpaceX may have a $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract with NASA, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The competitiveness of the free market and the need for spaceflight companies to actually, you know, make money spurs private space ventures to succeed at building spaceships faster and cheaper than NASA ever has.

spacex dragon private spaceflightIf it weren’t for commercial spaceflight, everyday people like you and me would probably never reach the stars in our lifetime. Yet thanks to private ventures, you can already buy tickets on suborbital space flights, albeit for an (appropriately) astronomical amount. Elon Musk has already announced he plans to have men in space by 2015 and on Mars in the next 10 to 20 years.

Of course, when private ventures like SpaceX do end up landing a man on Mars, they’ll be following a trail already blazed by NASA. With companies stepping up to the plate and starting to handle the galactic busy work, the U.S. space agency is free to focus on cutting-edge endeavors — like landing a rover on Mars using a mixture of a massive parachute, powerful downward thrusters and a hell of a lot of precise timing.

Private Spaceflight and NASA: Leading humanity into the final frontier

Neil Armstrong’s concerns of national dominance are overblown. “Most of the commercial space companies are American, so the US will lead the next generation of exploration whether it’s spearheaded by government or by commercial initiatives,” Altman notes.

StratoLaunch Systems hails from Alabama; Planetary Resources and Blue Origin call Washington home; and both Moon Express and SpaceX are headquartered in California, along with a number of other Lunar X Prize competitors. The list goes on and on.

Why? It’s as Richards and Altman said: Even with a reduced budget, NASA’s role as a guiding light and influence in space exploration cannot be understated. People want to be where the role model is.

Armstrong may be a hero, but in this case, he was wrong. With U.S.-based private companies handling the busywork and striving to make spaceflight more accessible than ever before while NASA focuses its efforts on the bigger picture, the nation’s future among the stars has never looked brighter.

I’ll let Moon Express’ Bob Richards have the last word.

“The role of entrepreneurs in space exploration and development will be vital to our sustainable development as a multi-planet species. I believe history will show, soon, that one generation of human beings witnessed the first human footprints on the Moon as well as the first human footprints on Mars, and in the transition from single world to multi-world species, the private sector played a crucial role.”

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