Prepare for Liftoff

The future of space exploration will be driven by private markets, not government spending.

HO/AFP/Getty Images
HO/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. Defense Department may have created the Internet, but had it kept control of the technology, it’s unlikely the Web would have become the vibrant public resource it is today. That credit goes to the investment and activity of private citizens and private companies, starting in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

With Barack Obama’s new spending proposals, the same sort of thing could happen to space travel and exploration. Critics of the new NASA budget have described the U.S. president as "cutting" manned space exploration and abandoning the hope of a return to the moon. But in fact, Obama’s novel approach signals a much more far-sighted view of space travel than Washington has had to date. The U.S. government should be leading the way in rocket science and space exploration, but it should leave exploitation of those advances to the private sector.

The new space budget will provide encouragement and funding for the private sector to do what it does best — move from technology research to technology development. To quote Rick Tumlinson , cofounder of the Space Frontier Foundation, a space advocacy group, there’s no need for the government to be "driving the trucks in low-earth orbit." It should focus on opening up the far frontiers while businesspeople deliver the goods.

The budget also devotes extra resources to keeping the International Space Station in operation.  The station was slated to be shut down, a crazy notion given that the United States has invested almost $100 billion and 30 years to build it and we have just started to make use of it. We have just moved to the six-person crew it was designed for, and it’s a fine initial hub for other space activities, including commerce, research, and exploration.

However, common sense doesn’t always rule in politics. When the Internet opened up to commerce, there were objections from the high priests of the cyberspace, who didn’t want anyone to turn their holy calling into a business.

In the case of space, there are jobs at stake and, more importantly, politicians’ careers at stake. Obama is proposing to cancel some $25 billion in NASA programs — with most of the cuts affecting jobs in Alabama, Utah, and Texas, whose congressional delegations are now up in arms.

But in the long run, the new approach will create more jobs — and more value — because the United States will end up with both an innovative, long-term government space program and an energetic, fast-growing private-sector market that will transport people and cargo for the U.S. government, space tourists, and non-U.S. governments. Ultimately, the costs and risks of space transport will come down, flights will increase, and markets will grow. As with the Internet, we can’t predict all the uses to which commercial innovation will put this infrastructure.

From the public’s point of view, it really doesn’t make much sense for the government to operate low-earth-orbit space flights when the private sector is willing to take over that part of the job. The private sector will take it on for profits and focus on efficiency over radical innovation, while NASA’s scientists and engineers get the opportunity to work on more speculative, long-term research and exploration projects. Right now, a variety of companies are developing and building spacecraft, exploring the production of pharmaceuticals in zero-gravity (which produces purer crystals), and devising space tourism operations.

Politically, the fuss is mainly about jobs that can help politicians get elected, and not about space exploration itself. The simple solution is some promise that the jobs will not be lost; they will simply be transformed. If no commercial company is willing to hire these workers, then perhaps they could retrain as teachers, an area where the United States desperately needs more scientists and technical people, or in medicine, which requires the same meticulous attention to detail.

But the commercial space market will need at least some of them. President Obama and all of us who want to focus on the future should not forget how good the private sector can be at creating both jobs and opportunities.

So now let me disclose my biases: I write as a member of the NASA Advisory Council  (for which I do not speak), and I have trained to be a cosmonaut courtesy of the Russian government’s space program. (I would love to see the U.S. government open up the skies to civilians as well.) Furthermore, I have investments in a couple of "new space" companies that stand to benefit from greater private-sector involvement in space travel.

I got involved in all these pursuits because I’m an enthusiast for space exploration and its two key promises — getting kids excited about math and science, and allowing humanity to escape the confines of this single planet and explore the rest of the universe. At a time when so much public discourse — and public spending — is focused on the here and now, it’s inspiring to see some hope that the U.S. government can still support both long-term projects and the kind of entrepreneurial businesses whose activities are key to America’s success.

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