Who knows the best way to explore space—the government or the market?
To listen to President Obama, the answer is NASA. The U.S. government’s space agency remains a favorite of the political class, despite decades of disappointment, high costs, and low ambitions. Although Obama allowed NASA’s 30-year-old shuttle program to end and canceled its replacement, Constellation, he has maintained the agency’s US $19 billion budget (give or take a few hundred million) and reaffirmed its central position in space exploration.
The president’s policy is mistaken, because space exploration is inexorably democratizing. Boeing is building a promising spacecraft. Bigelow Aerospace is developing a private space station and plans to train astronauts from countries without any formal space programs. Virgin Galactic is working on suborbital space flights for the paying public and, led by the British entrepreneur Richard Branson, is trying to marry entertainment values with space commerce. And Orbital Sciences Corp. has methodically mastered launch technology, sending 129 satellites into orbit over the past 20 years.
Probably the most exciting private effort is Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX. Since its inception, SpaceX has spent barely $800 million, which covers the costs of development for a launch vehicle, a spacecraft, and even the costs of building launch sites. By contrast, NASA spent about $13 billion on the now-canceled Constellation exploration program.
With the boom in private space technologies, what’s the proper role of government? Put simply, it should provide funds to others even as NASA surrenders control of how the money is spent. That might be a controversial position, but even NASA’s chief administrator, Charles F. Bolden Jr., says the agency must "get out of the business of owning and operating low Earth orbit transportation systems and hand that off to the private sector."
The change is already working. Thanks to about $800 million in public funding, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are each on track to deliver new rockets and spacecraft next year.
But promising indicators won’t end doubts about whether NASA can transform itself into an honest and effective dispenser of funds to others. It also must not fall prey to the urge to protect its own role by unfairly limiting private actors and pursuing its own high-cost projects for seemingly no other reason than to generate large spending bills that satisfy the pork-barrel instincts of individual lawmakers.