Tuesday, June 22, 2004

A Helluva Ride..Now, Back to Reality

The flight of Spaceship One is one of the most exciting things that has happened in spaceflight in a long time. What Rutan’s team has accomplished is absolutely awesome! I’ve been telling friends and family for some time (and it’s documented on my website in ?Andy’s Blog?) that my money was on Burt Rutan’s team to take the X Prize. No one else is as close to winning it as they are.

That said, I’d like to believe that what Burt said about a ?new age? in spaceflight coming true. Except I’ve heard it before. Now, I’ve been enamored with spaceflight my whole life, sometimes for reasons it would shock others to know. And I’ve been personally involved with it for the last twenty years. While I’m not as enamored with it as I used to be, I still feel that flying in space is a really cool thing to do. (I’d take the risk myself if the door was open to me; but I guess I’ll have to settle for just under 50,000 feet or so in the back of a zooming F-14.)

My exposure to the real life world of spaceflight is why I’m skeptical that the new age has finally come. Yes, we are definitely a step closer. But the immediate market for spaceflight will be the suborbital joyrides a small number of very rich people will take. What remains beyond that, for at least the next decade or two, remains to be seen. And it’s in the fog.

The commercialization of space has been something I’ve heard bandied about for longer than I have been personally involved with the space program. Yes, some companies are making money even, nearly all of them via government sponsored contracts. But the widespread economies of spaceflight have yet to manifest themselves; and while Rutan’s steps forward and those of people like him are welcome, they are still just steps. Small ones. One has to make a big technological leap to go from Mach 3 suborbital flight to Mach 25 orbits. It will take private entrepreneurs a lot more than $20 million dollars to get there, though not nearly what the government spends to do it.

The new space entrepreneurs are operating in an almost unregulated environment, and it’s one of the reasons they’ve been free to do what they have. But that will change the first time lives are lost in private spaceflight vehicles; and, at some point, they will be. Whether the U.S. government will have the courage to place on the baby industry only those safeguards that absolutely need to be there or whether they’ll produce a crush of requirements, inspections, and guarantees that will ensure that only governments have access to space is impossible to forecast. Time will tell whether I'm being too cynical or just realistic.

While I’m talking about keeping with reality, let me say this about the President’s Commission on Implementation of Space Exploration’s recommendation that NASA turn over more operations to private industry and only private industry can take us to the Moon or Mars:

?Are these guys asleep??

First, I have always been bothered by the fact that the Commission did not question whether the Bush vision was being implemented correctly. They did not perform a truly unbiased examination to find the best way to do things; Bush’s blind mandate to scrap both shuttle and station wastes assets that could be used to further his long range goals. Indeed, his ?line in the sand? approach holds all the promise of failing to produce anything since the targets are all unrealistic and cannot be met, especially with current funding levels. The shuttle program is already feeling the pinch, despite anyone’s denials.

Secondly, private contractors already do the lion’s share of work for NASA in its manned space exploration departments. If that approach is already struggling? and it is?then charging further down that road is nothing short of insane. Private enterprise exists to make a buck. If there is no tangible profit to be made from the effort itself, then the profit lies in the amount of money that can be pried out of the government. Sometimes the government gets a lot of bang for the buck, and sometimes it doesn’t. I realize it is the Republican way to believe that outsourcing everything to private industry is the righteous answer (and it certainly is the answer to larger political fundraising contributions), but it may also be the way to create more manned spaceflight inertia than NASA has ever produced in its wildest nightmares. The government must stay involved in manned spaceflight to do those things that are in the public’s interests, even if there is not a buck to be had. And there just aren’t a lot of there just yet. It’s the government’s job to build the infrastructure so there can be.