Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Mankind's future in the Universe

I wrote an op-ed on NASA and space exploration earlier this summer which touched on an important topic, namely what is man’s future in space? I wanted to share it here given the pending release of President Obama’s advisory panel’s report on NASA and it’s implications for where we go has human’s in the world. It is incredible how much space exploration has effected our daily lives by “spin-off technologies” (where do you think toothpaste came from?) and I think it is important to consider where we go in the future.

"Private Space Entrepreneurs will inherit the Apollo Space Legacy"

The recent celebration of the Apollo program’s first lunar landing has led many to wonder about the future of space exploration. With its uncertain vision, aging employees, and the retirement of its manned shuttle program next year, NASA is unlikely to lead the way. But any reevaluation of the future of space exploration must include the private sector. Over the last decade, private firms have proven that there is no shortage of interest in space entrepreneurship.

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy vowed America would “become the world’s leading space-faring nation,” and instructed NASA to lead the U.S. to victory in the space race. Only seven years later, Neil Armstrong made his giant leap for mankind.

Today, however, NASA has no Cold War competition and no specific timetable or goal to inspire the nation and motivate her engineers and astronauts. Its two biggest investments over the last two decades—the Space Shuttle program and the International Space Station (ISS) —are both scheduled to be discontinued.

Fortunately, the private sector is following in Armstrong’s footsteps, revitalizing space exploration in a way NASA no longer can. Although the prospect of a space shuttle in every garage is a ways off, some private firms are pursuing manned, commercial space flight.

The private sector is already at work on commercial ventures such as low-orbit tours around Earth and launching telecommunication satellites. As early as next year, tourists anxious for a new exotic travel destination could book a seat with Virgin Galactic, the private firm that won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004. $200,000 will buy you a trip to outer space where you will be able to float weightless as you watch the Earth through large windows. The price might seem exorbitant, but it’s a bargain compared to the $20 million multimillionaire Dennis Tito paid in 2001 to take the Russian capsule to the ISS.

With the ISS scheduled to de-orbit in 2016, many scientific experiments are in jeopardy. Private firms, however, can fill that gap as well. Bigelow Aerospace is developing commercial space stations, or habitats, and envisions them as destinations for research scientist and astronauts. These private stations could open the door to space for countries who have never had the opportunity to use the ISS and who would like a chance to do more extensive research.

Incidentally, after ending its Space Shuttle program in 2010, NASA plans to contract private firms to fly shuttles to the ISS until it is discontinued in 2016. Other opportunities for partnership between private and public enterprises abound.

But these companies need not seek government contracts or subsidies. Collaborating with the X Prize Foundation, Google has offered $30 million to the first privately funded company to place a rover on the moon and beam back pictures and other data through email. The rover must reach the moon before 2012 or the reward drops to $15 million and disappears altogether in 2014.

As NASA considers where to go next, fledgling aerospace companies are creating lean, efficient spacecraft to meet market demands and seize the X Prize. Ten years ago, a private space industry would have been considered science fiction—today it’s a viable business plan.

American's should remember the achievement of NASA’s Apollo program with pride. But as the next frontier in space approaches, we must consider the likely role of ambitious space entrepreneurs.


  1. In a free market system, entrepreneurs and consumers are free to do what they want with their money, so venture-capitalism-goes-spaceward is certainly something we would expect to see. It's the consumer demand that I question. There is something thrilling about the prospect of taking a trip into orbit, but there is also something about it that strikes me as off-kilter. It will always be highly dangerous, highly expensive, with a tremendous need for overhead to cover the inevitable lawsuits that will come from the accidents that happen. Government will end up getting involved, setting safety standards for passengers, creating all sorts of mandates and requirements and regulations, and for what? So that people can have a thrill ride? For that is all it will be. I think there is a big idol sitting in the middle of all this space exploration, and as a Christian, I think it needs to be exposed. Again, people should be free to pursue it, but they won't be. The government will not let them. And we should be aware of what we're doing when we worship the idol of human pride and haughtiness. One thinks of Babel. So personally, I would never encourage a lot of space travel, mainly because I think we have a stewardship here that has plenty to occupy us with for as long as can be imagined.

  2. The consumer demand is far more expansive than joy riding in space. Perhaps you are right to question the motives behind tourism in space and there certainly is the threat of dibilitating government regulations. And I would agree that there is the danger of idolizing man's achievements in space, in fact we already clearly have built that idol. But think for a moment where we would be without space exploration? The number and varity of spin-offs from space programs are amazing -- everything from pacemakers to enriched baby food. So, perhaps we should not have a large tourist space travel industry, but we should certainly appluad (as Christians and market-oriented people)private space entreprenueship. Why? Because if NASA can find as many advances and technologies as they have from space programs, imagine how much private companies with the proper incentives -- compeition that spurs innovation -- could discover!

  3. Yes, you said it better than I.