Remember when the shuttle program was axed last year? Conservatives and scientists throughout America, short of performing harakiri in abject dishonor, lamented President Barack Obama’s decision to cut NASA’s prized program.
Conservatives were quick to use the opportunity to berate Obama over another policy failure surely responsible for ending American primacy in space and abandoning the final frontier to China and Russia. Scientists likewise bemoaned the cut in funds for “crucial” scientific research claiming it would forestall our technological progress.
Related Article: “Goodbye NASA, Hello Space Age! To Infinity and Beyond!”
The knee jerk reaction is understandable, mankind’s fascination with space is insatiable, if not, our addiction to a constellation of artificial satellites surely is. But that is the point, our need to maintain and grow this celestial infrastructure alone should drive markets to fill the void where cosmic bureaucrats formerly held sway. The idea that without Big Science, and the largesse of the U.S. government, technological progress would halt in America and left to be dictated solely by others is without merit.
On Friday, after a privately owned company linked up with the International Space Station, Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin, the second man to step onto the moon, seemed to agree. “Nearly 43 years after we first walked on the moon, we have taken another step in demonstrating continued American leadership in space.”
What for a moment seemed embarrassing, even abhorrent – to ask Russia for a lift into space – has given way to a realization Barack Obama’s single random act of cost cutting may have earned him a very special accolade. Much to the chagrin of conservatives and alarmists Obama may soon be regarded as harbinger of capitalism in space.
By providing the initial thrust, namely the demand for private rockets and shuttles, for a fledgling commercial space industry to supply (not to mention a home for unemployed rocket scientists) Obama has in his absence accomplished what he never could have dreamed in all his meddlesome machinations.
On Friday a private company, Space X, headed by a real life Tony Stark a.k.a. Elon Musk officially abolished the nearly 50 year government monopoly in space. Musk, the man who helped bring about the world’s largest Internet payment system, Pay Pal, and the unbelievably fast all electric Tesla Roadster on Friday made a quantum leap in commercializing space.
By using his own privately designed rocket, the Falcon 9, to propel the Dragon spacecraft to that DMV in the sky known as the International Space Station Musk has been passed a baton formerly reserved for a small elite band of government agencies and has taken Space X boldly where no private company has gone before. Albeit NASA contributed $381 million in seed money – fancying themselves venture capitalists – much of the blood and sweat is due to this entrepreneurial magnate.
Elon Musk almost lost his shirt investing much of his own money while building Tesla Motors from the ground up, but he ultimately prevailed as the Tesla sedan proves electric cars are viable and don’t have to look like a bug on acid.
Speaking of magnates Richard Branson is well on his way to making low Earth orbit a hot spot for celebrities and those with cash to blow. His Virgin Galactic enterprise has already built the world’s first Spaceport in New Mexico and his passenger manifests read like the headlines at TMZ. He plans to have space tourists enjoying a float about very soon.
In an elite cocktail of capitalism Google’s Eric Schmidt, Ross Perot and James Cameron (no doubt bored of travelling deeper in Earth’s oceans than any other human) have teamed up for a new cosmic voyage and no its not a movie, much more blue collar – asteroid mining. According to the company, Planetary Resources:
“…near-term goals are to dramatically reduce the cost of asteroid exploration. We will combine the best practices of commercial aerospace innovation, operational adaptability, and rapid manufacturing to create robotic explorers that cost an order of magnitude less than current systems.
We will control costs by constraining scope and creating simple designs that can be executed by a small, expert team. And although we will hold ourselves to the highest standards and practices, we will aggressively accept mission risk where appropriate.
Our philosophy will allow rapid development of private, commercial interplanetary space exploration. In light of fiscal challenges facing the spaceflight community, innovation in cost and market is as valuable as innovation in capability.”
Yikes! “Aggressively accept mission risk” and “innovation in cost and market” utterances we rarely ever heard from NASA. These intergalactic miners aren’t the only ones seeking new energy stores in space. Companies like Shackelton Energy are chomping at the bit for an opportunity to scoop up helium-3 and plutonium-238 which should be able to power everything from space stations to lunar rovers.
Don’t feel like hauling space luggage, floating in low Earth orbit, mining the moon or asteroids? Robert Bigelow, founder of BudgetSuites, has a six-diamond idea that will make the Burge Dubai blush – space hotels. He has already tested and launched experimental modules that currently remain in orbit and Elon Musk has agreed to partner with Bigelow Aerospace in order to kick off an international marketing effort for private-sector space stations.
Needless to say if we can extricate NASA and the U.S. government successfully from these processes we’ll have full fledged capitalism in space. Until then it is unfortunately more of the same we suffer from here on Earth – crony capitalism. Many of these cosmos bound start ups are funded by Congress through NASA and until companies like Space X, Blue Origin, Planetary Resources, Sierra Nevada Corp, etc. are able to cut the proverbial multi-million dollar umbilical cord it remains to be seen whether the market in space is ultimately worth it – at least right now.
As MSNBC’s Cosmic Log reported earlier this month:
It is highly questionable whether NASA will get as much money for commercial crew development as it has requested. The request for fiscal year 2013 was almost $830 million, but a Senate subcommittee cut that figure to $525 million. Today the House passed a bill specifying an even lower funding level, $500 million. The White House has threatened a presidential veto of that bill, in part because of its concerns about the cutback in commercial crew support.
Pegging space exploration and development to the political fate of the U.S. government is not a sustainable business model. Our financial and real estate markets can attest to that fact. While Newt Gingrich was right, its time to shoot the Moon we don’t want the government involved again, politicians all too often will use it as a political football. If Space X and Elon Musk want to dine on Mars in their very own Martian Space colony they’re going to have to figure out how to do it on their own.
Until then, we’ll still be rooting for the private space race to begin: