Boeing Corporation, the giant American aero-space company, announced that it will be joining the effort to provide transport for ‘space tourists’ to and from the International Space Station (ISS).
This sounds like a major step for the commercial development of space. It could be. However, in reality it’s a step into the often contradictory world of American (space) politics, governmental policy, and corporate interests. Start with this point: Boeing has already made it clear that their plans for shuttling up to three space tourists (along with NASA astronauts) very much depends on ‘substantial’ government subsidy.
Nothing new there, except for the background idea of developing commercial crew space ventures. That is, space activity associated with private enterprise and for-profit space activity. This should be a natural for the pro-private enterprise Republican Party to support. But American politics, these days, doesn’t often follow natural patterns. In this case, commercial space has been tagged as “Obama’s idea,” which is automatically not supportable by Republicans. (The actual idea comes from the Augustine Commission, a broadly based re-evaluation of the entire American space program.) More to the point, many prominent Republicans represent states and districts where the current corporate space establishment operates – and their primary interest is to continue NASA business as it usually has been.
The lack of Republican support in Congress has led to alternative funding plans for NASA, and what is now a relatively complicated mess. It pits companies such as Boeing, which has one foot in the territory of the old NASA and one foot in the new frontier NASA, against companies with both feet in the old NASA. At this point, NASA is in the middle, uncertain of whether it is in the manned space business, or something else.
All of this would make an interesting debate: Where should human (not just American) efforts be placed in the attempt to explore and utilize space? Unfortunately the debate is rife with hidden agendas, nationalist overtones, and declining ability to make meaningful funding.
For a short overview of the situation, the September 15th New York Times covers it in Boeing Plans to Fly Tourists to Space.