One thing that I’ll likely always believe is in the sheer and total importance of human space exploration. There are myriad reasons why the human race MUST explore well beyond earth orbit. (And as I said over 4 years ago, there is really only one all-encompassing reason: the survival of the human species.) But necessity has never meant that centralized Government was the only way (or the best way…or even a GOOD way) to do it.
A few weeks ago, I was listening to an interview of a guy named Rand Simberg, a “recovering aerospace engineer” who began to explain something that has been bugging me for years: what is a “Conservative” Space Policy?
Here’s an excerpt from an article written a little over a year ago on the topic by Mr. Simberg:
Part of the mindset that grew out of [the Apollo] era was that Space = NASA, and that “Progress in Space” = “Funding NASA” and that not funding NASA, or adequately funding NASA, or changing NASA’s goals, is a step backwards. But as I noted at Popular Mechanics yesterdayon the 24th anniversary of the Challenger loss, that tragedy had a good outcome, in that it allowed private industry to start to become more involved in space exploration, a trend that continues (and that the Bush/Griffin administration did support, albeit with paltry funding, in the form of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to pick up slack in delivering cargo to the space station after Shuttle is retired this year or next). We have been in fact developing, though far too slowly, the sort of private-enterprise (and more intrinsically American than Soviet in nature) space program that might have evolved more naturally had we not been sidetracked by Apollo in the sixties.
What the administration is doing finally ending the model of the government having a state socialist design bureau to build a monopoly transportation system for its own use, at tremendous cost, which is politically supportable because of all the pork it provides to Alabama, Florida, and Texas. It proposes to expand the COTS program to provision of crew changeout in addition to cargo delivery, encouraging competition, and providing a robust capability that won’t put us out of business when the government rocket fails, as has happened twice with the Shuttle in the past quarter century, for almost three years each time. Instead of a program projected to cost many tens of billions over the next decade for a NASA-owned-and-operated new rocket (Ares I) that will cost billions per flight of four astronauts, it is going to invest 6 billion dollars in developing private capability, with multiple competitors, and do it on a fixed-price, pay-for-performance basis, rather than the wasteful cost-plus model that inevitably results in overruns due to the perverse incentives.
This hit me in the face like a wet squirrel when I heard this explained in the interview. Why have so many of us fallen into the trap of believing that space travel has to be planned, driven, funded, restricted, and controlled by Government and by Government only?
With that in mind, it is Mr. Simberg’s opinion that President Obama has unwittingly stumbled upon a Conservative policy stance in his space policy. Why? Because he doesn’t care about Space. And to hear Mr. Rand tell it, we should rue the day that he does.