President Obama has recently ordered a drastic realignment for NASA, effectively altering their scope from manned exploration toward more earth sciences and avionics research. His orders effectively scrap the constellation program and the methods for getting astronauts into space – both to the International Space Station in orbit as well as to celestial bodies such as the Moon and Mars.
Many involved in the space industry as well as those who follow NASA and international efforts in space fear that Obama’s new orders may well be the final nails in the coffin that houses American dominance in space, particularly manned exploration. With the space shuttle being finally retired in 2011, the United States will depend exclusively on Russian rocketry to put our men and women into space at expenses that would baffle the mind – in 2010, six seats on Russian Soyuz transports will cost the U.S. $287.4 million. That’s just shy of $48 million per seat, and the price only goes up from there. Costs are slated to rise to $55 million per seat by 2013!
There are large segments of the American population who disagree with the need for such expenditures at all, but the American public generally recognizes and understands the need and value for space science and exploration. Particularly advocates for the poor and impoverished argue that the billions dedicated to the “playground for the rich white scientists” could be better spent on better schools, police, or other public services that are routinely cut when the money gets tight on the local level.
Such disparities aside (because they are largely an entirely different debate on politics), even Obama himself does not suggest that NASA is unnecessary. He made a speech at the Kennedy Space Center where he tried to reassure the country that he was not out to end America’s position in space science, but begin a new path with a new vision.
“The challenges facing our space program are different, and our imperatives for this program are different, than in decades past. We’re no longer racing against an adversary. We’re no longer competing to achieve a singular goal like reaching the Moon. In fact, what was once a global competition has long since become a global collaboration.”
So what he now proposes is to work toward privatizing space, moving the burden of putting astronauts in space to the private sector and theoretically putting NASA in charge of managing or possibly only overseeing it. There have been many prominent figures that have come out to vehemently disagree with this plan, including Buzz Aldrin.
But is there advantage to be found in an attempt to push the tasks of transportation and logistics to the private sector? Surely many jobs at NASA is and has been handled by contractors for quite some time. Support for the shuttle missions are staffed and run by contractors from many different companies. The communications networks both on the ground and in space are all run and supported by contractors. Why not transportation?
The contemporary line of thinking seems to be that government-run endeavors are the only safe method that can manage the process, but the argument seems more than a bit thin. Is Social Security doing well? Rather than listing out disasters that are owned by the government, how about someone suggest a federal project that isn’t a disaster? Good luck with that.
In all the classic movies of the far future, mankind in space isn’t generally referred to as American or Russian – we’re the Earthlings, right? Man. Humans. So why would we insist that as the very technologies that would free us from the third rock from the sun are born that we must cling to those very inefficient shackles of nationality?
The real travesty here is in delaying. Thankfully, the private sector has been steadily taking advantage of prizes from both NASA and institutions such as the X-prize to inch closer and closer to a commercial launching into space transit.
Commercialization is simply a natural progression, and will have pitfalls to regret as well as successes to celebrate, but that shouldn’t nix the concept before it is ever given a chance.