Jewish World Review June 18, 2004 / 29 Sivan, 5764
Let enterprise boldly go into space
When the presidential commission on revamping the US space program issued its report yesterday, my thoughts went back to that day 35 summers ago July 20, 1969 when the Eagle landed and two Americans walked on the moon.
Anyone old enough to remember the moon landings probably remembers as well the heady expectation that even greater feats of space travel were soon to come. Americans were sure that Neil Armstrong's "giant leap for mankind" would be repeated by hundreds, and eventually thousands, of adventurous men and women. Lunar pioneers would build the first extraterrestrial colonies. Astronauts would press on to Mars, the asteroids, and beyond. There were worlds to explore, and we would explore them.
But we didn't.
The first moon voyage was followed by just five others; the last, Apollo 17, returned on Dec. 19, 1972. There has been no space tourism, no lunar colony, no manned mission to Mars. Granted, the 35 years since Armstrong's leap have not been completely devoid of accomplishment the Hubble telescope, the Mars rovers, Voyager's flybys of Jupiter and Saturn. But they can hardly be compared to the griping drama of the moon landings. Neither can the space shuttle program. Shuttle launches are gorgeous, but the shuttle itself is not much more than a prosaic space truck it goes up and down, up and down, and never gets beyond Earth's orbit.
Fired by President Kennedy's challenge and driven to win the race with the Soviets, NASA performed brilliantly in the 1960s. It got a handful of Americans to the moon and back. But what has it done in the decades since to justify the many billions of taxpayer dollars it has spent?
Not much, says Rick Tumlinson, founder of the Space Frontier Foundation, which promotes the opening of space to active exploration and settlement.
"NASA's human spaceflight program today is like an old ex-athlete who won the Olympics a long time ago," Tumlinson says. "It is bloated, inflexible, self-indulgent, and lives on re-runs of its better days." Nothing will change, he argues, so long as NASA remains a government monopoly, hunkered down in low-Earth orbit and blocking the dynamism that a private space industry could generate. The way to turn NASA around is by pushing it back into the arena of outer space "and forcing it to run again this time with a teammate called private enterprise."
The idea that space travel ought to be partly or wholly privatized is no libertarian whimsy. In recent years, it has been embraced by an array of experts and enthusiasts. Britain's astronomer royal, Sir Martin Rees, wants to see wealthy adventurers plow their own funds into exploring outer space. The Economist last year called for scuttling the obsolete and unsafe space shuttle and letting the private sector take over routine space transport. "If NASA were a customer, and not a competitor, in the business of building spacecraft," it suggested, "companies might have the incentive to extend their craft all the way into orbit."
Then there is the consortium of entrepreneurs sponsoring the Ansari X Prize, which will pay $10 million to the first team or company that launches a privately-built, manned spaceship able to carry three people 100 kilometers (62.5 miles) above the earth twice in two weeks. Among those racing to win the prize: Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and aircraft designer Burt Rutan, who created the first plane to fly around the world without refueling. NASA itself is proposing to earmark a small slice of its $15 billion budget to establish annual prizes for private-sector innovations "that advance exploration of the solar system and beyond, and other NASA goals."
Private enterprise belongs in space: Clearly, this is an idea whose time as come. And now a high-level panel the President's Commission on Moon, Mars, and Beyond is saying so explicitly.
"The Commission believes that commercialization of space should become the primary focus of the vision," the new report declares. It calls on NASA to clear the way for "an entirely new set of businesses . . . that will seek profit in space." It endorses the proposal for government-funded prizes to encourage technological breakthroughs. It urges Congress to enact tax relief, protect property rights in space, and ease regulations that unduly hamper space industries from growing. It recommends turning over all low-Earth orbit launches to private companies.
In short, the commission repudiates the policy of leaving space travel firmly in the hands of the state. And about time, too. For if human beings are truly meant to slip the surly bonds of Earth if we are destined to live on the moon, walk on Mars, explore the Solar System we will need to draw on greater reserves of imagination and creativity than government bureaucracies can manage. Solid rocket boosters can get human beings off a launch pad, but getting them permanently into space will require something even mightier: the unmatched power of competition, incentive, and free enterprise.
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Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.
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