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The Economist on the Shuttle

The Economist published a withering editorial on the Space Shuttle last week:

[T]he shuttle has never adequately done what it was meant to do. It has always been a bad design: expensive, inherently risky and -- as two fatal accidents have demonstrated -- unsafe. It cannot launch satellites at a sensible price, and it lifts people into orbit only because of America's very deep pockets. America and its taxpayers need a better way to continue the development of space transport...

Despite many attempts, and many billions spent, NASA has failed to come up with a convincing alternative. And later this year, while the shuttle is still firmly grounded, China may launch astronauts for the first time. A situation could arise where China, Russia and an entrepreneur called Burt Rutan, based in a shed in the Mojave desert, constitute the world's entire potential for launching astronauts.

The Economist goes on to argue -- wisely, I think -- for a true privatization of human launch capability:

Getting people on and off the space station is not, actually, rocket science any more. It should be a routine job, and its replacement, as NASA concedes, could easily be built using cheap off-the-shelf technology. So this is the ideal moment to extract NASA completely from the business of routine space transport. NASA should have no involvement in building a replacement vehicle to visit the station: the agency has no incentive to solve the problem with a simple solution...

[W]hile NASA has been throwing money at the shuttle, a new generation of entrepreneurs and companies has been trying to enter the space business. Some, such as Mr Rutan, are competing to build the first privately financed craft to take people into space -- for an award of $10m. In five years' time, private enterprise may well be putting more people into space than governments can. There is a great deal of demand for short, tourist rides into space.

Indeed, if private enterprise can create astronauts with only millions of dollars, what might it achieve with a fraction of NASA's wasted billions? The space station is a mere 380km (240 miles) above the Earth. That is about four times further than any of today's private suborbital craft are trying to reach. But, if NASA were a customer, and not a competitor, in the business of building spacecraft, companies might have the incentive to extend their craft all the way into orbit...

[T]he existence of the shuttle doubtless inhibits the development of a private space industry and the new private companies face regulatory restrictions that do not apply to the shuttle. Remove some of these barriers, scuttle the shuttle, and a private industry may bloom. Then, some of those who once watched Columbia's perfect landing might experience the thrill of going into space for themselves. And NASA could explore the real frontiers.

I myself have wondered what would happen if the X Prize were not for suborbital flight, but for true orbital launch capability, and if the prize were $500 million -- or even $1 billion -- instead of $10 million. Who would be competing? What would they build?

Another way to do this would be for the US government to announce that, beginning in, say, 2008, it is going to select vendors to contract out all future astronaut launches (probably beginning in 2009 or 2010). Make the announcement non-rescindable and set simple, easily measurable requirements: astronaut capacity, on-orbit mission length, compatibility with existing orbital docking systems, safety proven through a series of successful launches (with safety board review afterwards), and so on. Announce how many launches the government will contract for and on what schedule, and that the government will choose as few as one and as many as three of the most inexpensive vendors whose vehicles and systems meet all the requirements. Then sit back and let visionary entrepreneurs like Burt Rutan, John Carmack, and Jeff Bezos do their thing.

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