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.
NASA, long dominated by a not-invented-here mentality, has problems that eerily resemble those of the U.S. Postal Service—so much money is required merely to keep the past alive. Given its desire to maintain large and overlapping centers of excellence in Alabama, California, Florida, and Texas, NASA might never become an honest broker between competing private actors, mostly because agency bureaucrats still have too many of their own projects in the game and because members of Congress, bent on benefiting their own political constituencies, remain too willing to warp NASA’s policies and priorities.
One fresh example of NASA’s attraction to costly esoterica is the agency’s proposal to maintain filling stations, or "propellant depots," in space. NASA insists that fueling in space will get spacecraft to land on an asteroid sooner, but doing so would also vastly increase the cost and complexity of such missions by requiring 11 to 17 launches instead of 4. The decision by NASA to keep a critical report on the program secret for some time shocked Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-Cal.), who wants a more economical approach to human flight.
Private space companies are already concerned that NASA lacks the discipline to serve an "open source" world. If NASA takes "a traditional approach," said a Bigelow executive recently, "you’re going to get the traditional result, which is broken budgets and no flight hardware."
The worry is that the Obama administration, by increasing funding to the private sector, is cynically trying to deflect criticism of NASA and allow the government to defend its space monopoly for years to come. A frontline NASA official, one of several in charge of setting smooth rules for private space contractors, insists that "we really have been thinking outside the box."
One way to demonstrate that the United States is genuinely entering a new space age is for NASA to privatize its operations in Houston, Huntsville, Cape Canaveral, and Pasadena, turning them into nonprofit, independent labs that would at first wholly depend on government subventions but gradually become self-sustaining by providing services to both private space companies and covert national-security agencies, which have their own space needs. The death of NASA as a whole would permit its strongest pieces to thrive, albeit in a new organizational form.
Whether or not NASA can survive the accelerating shift to a market-driven space exploration, the government should avoid the temptation to justify continued public funding as a means of countering China’s space ambitions. President Obama recognized as much in his April 2010 speech on the future of the space program in which he admitted, "We’re no longer racing against an adversary." Obama’s realization is a great start for peering into space more clearly.
A correction to this article was made 16 November 2011 to clarify that NASA's shuttle program ended under Obama's term.
About the Author
G. Pascal Zachary is a professor of practice at the Consortium for Science Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University. He is the author of Showstopper!: The Breakneck Pace to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft (The Free Press, 1994), on the making of a Microsoft Windows program, and Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century (MIT Press, 1999), which received IEEE’s first literary award. Zachary reported on Silicon Valley for The Wall Street Journal in the 1990s; for The New York Times, he launched the Ping column on innovation in 2007. The Scientific Estate is made possible through the support of Arizona State University and IEEE Spectrum.