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Business Week on the Future of NASA

Last September, I wrote:

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.

Now Business Week has weighed in on this issue:
Since man last set foot on the moon in 1972, NASA has enjoyed a monopoly on U.S. manned space missions, doling out contracts to its aerospace cronies. As a result, the cost of putting people into orbit is about the same now as 30 years ago -- roughly $10,000 per pound, although cheaper commercial launch vehicles are available.

To get more boost for everyone's buck, NASA should gracefully exit the space-ferry game and get back to the future of exploring new frontiers...

There's no telling what such newcomers could achieve if Washington were to encourage private enterprise. Already, the entrepreneurs have been showing up NASA and its heavyweight contractors, says James W. Benson, the ex-software entrepreneur who founded SpaceDev. NASA's attempts to come up with something better than the aging Space Shuttle "have been billion-dollar boondoggles," he notes.

I hope that momentum for this sort of idea continues to build. Set clear, measurable criteria, and then let the private sector work its magic. If the Federal government promised to pump tens of billions of dollars into private launch vehicles in the coming years, we'd see venture capital pouring into the private space launch community, and a flowering of approaches to the problem of getting people and equipment into space and back cheaply and safely.


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See http://www.ssi.org/alt-plan.html -- This document is almost fifteen years old!

The human race has historically done better under independent, contracted, or outsourced development of new frontiers, at least in the last four or five hundred years. Having a government agency perform that service exclusively is wasteful. The current space program has coasted for years on the successes of an outgrowth of military research provoked by the cold war. It is time for a change. Oneill's research and advocacy for space exploration and development is just a small (albeit significant) contribution to a growing movement. It is slow going.

Of course, if the U.S. becomes commercially successful in space development, it will mean the expansion of American culture into an entire new frontier. Would capital investment into commercial space development be called "Star bucks?"


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