Why Not the Era of Innovation?

On Thursday, Russia boasted that the world was now moving into the “Era of the Soyuz.” With the landing of the last U.S. shuttle, the Russian craft stands alone as a means of transportation between the Earth and the International Space Station.

This shows a lack of forethought by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to not prepare for the inevitable retirement of the shuttle program. It also demonstrates deep-seeded fears within the bureaucracy to relinquish the stars. The years leading up to the retiring of the shuttle program could have been the long-waited for opportunity to privatize U.S. space travel, or at least to permit meaningful private competition, but that launch window has closed. This could have been the dawn of an era of private interstellar innovation, but the Sun has yet to rise on that day.

Better late than never, many private aeronautics companies are finally moving forward with their efforts to reach the stars. In a recent op-ed in The Washington Times, Robert Zurbin, president of Pioneer Astronautics, described the many options of privately-developed launch vehicles:

Right now, the choice of most cost-effective launcher is a horse race between the Boeing Delta IV, the Lockheed Atlas V and the Spacex Falcon 9. However, starting in 2013, Spacex will field the Falcon Heavy, which, with a lift capacity of 53 metric tons and a price tag of $80 million, will offer three times the amount of goods delivered for the price as any of its competitors.

However, as Fox News reported, these programs are still being subsidized by NASA:

Several private companies are currently vying to build the new spacecraft NASA will need for future cargo runs and astronaut ferry flights, with NASA paying out tens of million to help fuel their efforts — part of the Commercial Crew Development 2 (CCDev2) program. The front-runner hopes to make its first shipment of supplies as early as the end of this year.

The four companies leading the push: Blue Origin of Kent, Wash., which won $22 million from NASA; Sierra Nevada Corp. of Louisville, Colo., which was awarded $80 million; Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif., which got $75 million; and Boeing of Houston, which received $92.3 million.

Even though many, including Zurbin, support government subsidization, his own arguments show there is a significant amount of profit to be made in orbital transportation. Meaning subsidization is really not necessary, except as a means for NASA to control and direct the process:

With a large guaranteed market, launch-vehicle companies would compete hard to create ever-more-capable systems. They also would be able to put mass-production techniques into action, thereby causing the costs of their rockets to fall over time. This, in turn, would enable the transorbital railroad to increase further the frequency and capacity of its service and would result in a dramatic drop in the cost of launch vehicles bought outside of the transorbital railroad program as well.

Zurbin predicts great success if a large network of private space transportation is allowed to develop:

Within a few years, we could be sending not a mere handful of people into orbit each year, but hundreds. Instead of a narrow space program with timid objectives moving forward at the snail’s pace of politically constrained bureaucracy, we could have dozens of bold endeavors of every kind, attempting to realize every vision and every dream – reaching out, taking risks and proving the impossible to be possible.

NASA should not be subsidizing this bright future — the bureaucracy will only stifle our upcoming achievements as it has held back our progress to date. As long as we are in the Era of the Soyuz instead of the era of innovation, you might as well buy yourself a nice telescope. None of us will be going to the stars anytime soon.