This coming decade has the potential to be the most exciting time in the history of human space travel since the 1970s - maybe ever. All the pieces are there. Will we grasp that opportunity? What will it take?
Space remains more important to the USA than ever, and especially to the U.S. military which is becoming more and more of a "space power" as a natural extension of its naval pre-eminence. Yet other countries besides the USA have a strong interest in space, and NASA may not be up to the job of keeping America ahead.
How could the USA compete on terms that favour its strengths, help to maintain its preeminence, and simultaneously open the benefits and opportunity of space to humanity? What might that new model look like?
Rand Simberg notes, correctly, that space travel is still wedded to a 1960s model that may have been appropriate to the Cold War, but is no longer valid today. Fortunately, private efforts like the X-Prize, the backing of tech billionaires, and airplane designers like Burt Rutan may usher in a new era of affordable Low Earth Orbit (LEO) vehicles.
If the cost barriers to productive space efforts can be lowered, the effect on both private enterprise and other nations could make LEO vehicles the stepping stones for a bigger, sustainable space industry - and eventually to a new generation of space exploration technologies. That's the way innovation works in other industries, at least in those industries unhampered by the fundamentally Soviet model of human space efforts thus far. Rand Simberg is making a fine point when he discusses "enabling technologies" vs. "enhancing technologies", and Bill Whittle discussed the broader innovation dynamic in Trinity, Part 2, but the point actually goes deeper than that. LEO craft could well prove to be what Clayton Christensen calls a "disruptive technology."
Of course, once you get up into space, the question of what to do with that access arises. LaughingWolf's thoughtful & excellent Space Commercialization series offers all kinds of interesting ideas - led by new business models, not new technologies. The core of that future, however, is a radically different model for NASA that directs research and enables private efforts. As "reinventing government" gurus like Osborne and Gaebler would put it, NASA needs a mission that focuses more on steering, and less on rowing.
It's a model that may even mean the end of NASA as we know it. As LaughingWolf notes:
"Space tracking, data and relay, and other functions currently performed by Goddard can easily be integrated into Space Command. Essential launch operations should go to the Air Force. Commercial promotion and development should go to the Department of Commerce, and be directed to make the fullest possible use of commercial launch and development services. All non-essential launch services should be contracted out to truly private launch operations as soon as possible.As James Pinkerton wrote back in October 2000, the libertarian paradox of our journey into space is that it may "take non-libertarian means to achieve libertarian ends." LaughingWolf's thoughts extend that idea in a useful and fruitful direction.
Core functions of essential research into aviation and space development can be given to a new, small, agency. This agency will do some research on its own, but should fund as much of that research as possible to be done by private companies. There is some need for government funded, directed, and performed research, but the fact is that much of what is being done could be better done by private industry. Government needs, at best, to nudge and encourage, not to do and control."
These will be challenging times for NASA, with the coming release of the Columbia report and the necessary onslaught of questions it will provoke. To move ourselves forward, however, we need to be asking the right questions. So kudos to Laughingwolf, Wind Rider, Rand Simberg... and all of the passionate and informed commentators who are helping us rethink our species' journeys into space. Special kudos, and heartfelt appreciation too, to all of the private individuals working on their own dime to make access to the stars a reality for themselves and their fellow human beings.
Ad astra, per aspera.
* Blogger and rocket scientist Rocket Man says there is one piece missing.
* Rand Simberg builds on the discussion, and responds to LaughingWolf's 'abolish NASA' proposal: "The most frustrating thing to me, of course, is that we continue to discuss what to do with NASA without having the more fundamental discussion of what we're trying to achieve."
* LaughingWolf gladly picks up the baton, and begins to answer Rand's question. "So, why are we going to space and what do we want to do there?"