It’s not like the United States is the only game in space. It wasn’t even the only country with a Moon project. China and Russia both made noises about going to the Moon with men (or women). Still, the U.S. was the pioneer on the Moon – the Apollo Project, “One giant step for mankind…”, and all that. Thus when the Obama administration’s just released 2010 budget more or less officially jettisoned the President Bush announced ‘Constellation Program’ to return men to the Moon by 2020; it’s news for the world. However, it wasn’t the most interesting news. That news should be the reshaping of U.S. space policy to include ‘private initiative’ in the affairs of space. The U.S. space agency, NASA, will no longer be the sole contractor; it will have to become a partner with private industry.
This is really a not such a huge change in the actual operations of NASA. NASA was already partnered, for all practical purposes, with a handful of its major suppliers. NASA called the shots on specifications for equipment, but the partners set up the channels at the budget level (which is mostly political). The new arrangement changes some of the chairs at the table. NASA won’t set all the specifications, but the big money will still tend to flow in the same channels.
Of course, in the U.S. system of local ‘pork’ – the practice of allocating large Federal installations and project grants to states with politically favorable environments; there will be some losers. Communities in Alabama, Florida, Texas, Utah and elsewhere will find their unemployment rates looking like those for the rest of the country. Most of the adjustments were expected, however, and the space industry in the United States (what was left of it) was already undergoing subtle or not so subtle shifts. The military portion of the space business will remain in the hands of the Pentagon and its business partners (many of whom are same as the NASA business partners). NASA may be dealing with many ‘entrepreneurial’ endeavors, which it previously avoided like the plague, though it will make this as symbolic as possible.
Nevertheless, for the rest of the world looking on, the change in policy actually constitutes something of an experiment. The United States will be the only country that actually seems to expect private initiative – that is, innovative, entrepreneurial companies – to become a prominent part of developing space. In the beginning, it will be to develop a space-worthy vehicle for servicing the International Space Station. Later, it will be space tourism, or whatever. To most of the world, this seems fully in character with the spirit of the United States – business first, last, and in the middle.
Gone are the projects that capture the imagination. No attempts to reach Mars or the Moon. It will be very problematic for any country to mount a space operation of that scale without seriously jeopardizing its economic stability. The Europeans have already decided to commit no such folly. Japan, India, and Brazil would choke on the cost. Russia will have to be willing to risk its treasury and waning technical credibility. China…well, China could probably make the effort. The Chinese will need to make a calculation similar to that made by the United States and Russian during the first race to the Moon – Is there a pressing national prestige at stake? Certainly having the people of the People’s Republic standing on the Moon would make a fine statement. If it can be done.
That’s the problem with manned exploration of outer space in this decade (2010-2020); it’s still a marginal proposition, i.e. risky. The technology hasn’t improved much from what was invented for the space programs of the 1960’s. Yes, we have better computers. There are better materials for constructing spacecraft. However, propulsion systems are still barely controlled explosions that blow enormous quantities of money and materials with each rocket. A cheaper, modular, systematic approach to achieving space from Earth’s enormous gravity well is nowhere to be seen. Until those problems are solved, grand visions of sending even a few people far into space are mostly suicidal.
That’s one of the things making the American commercial space experiment interesting. Is it possible that the wherewithal for projects, which the taxpayer won’t pay and the government can’t manage, can be found among the biggest (and smallest) corporations? Are there enough technical and systems solutions to be found that way? We’ll know in a couple of decades.
Meanwhile, as the ‘manned space flight’ issue spins off into the realms of investment and capital formation, there is the ‘other’ issue: Science in space.
It’s no secret that un-manned space flight, largely for the purpose of doing science, is rewarding both in knowledge and in media coverage. It suits the governments of countries with space ambitions well. There is an almost insatiable desire on the part of fairly large swaths of the world’s population to read, hear and see things about space. Perhaps it is the science fiction culture, or perhaps it is just the ‘pioneer in us all’ but space remains on the romantic end of many people’s thoughts. This can, and often does, translate into at least moderate support for missions like Cassini (to Saturn) or equipment such as the Kepler Space Telescope. Even so, most science oriented space projects are expensive relative to return. They exist at the margin of governmental support. The diminution of money for manned space flight does not mean an increase in money for science. Possibly quite the contrary, as once the economizing begins in one area, it will have a tendency to spread to others.
What will happen to science in space in the absence of the grand visions for human exploration? Perhaps there is something of an inspirational vacuum, an opportunity that something – a country, a company, an idea – will seize? At the start of 2010, let’s be optimistic.