Big Government’s Final Frontier

There’s something about space policy that makes conservatives forget their principles. Just one mention of NASA, and conservatives are quite happy to check their small-government instincts at the door and vote in favor of massive government programs and harsh regulations that stifle private enterprise. It’s time to abort that mission.

Loren Thompson, writing in the Forbes Business in the Beltway blog, recently suggested that President Obama’s space policy represents the “end of the road” for U.S. manned space flight. Yet Thompson is simply repeating a defense of pork barrel politics that would play well in Huntsville or Houston. Moreover, his claim that President Bush had a plan that “might have one day carried astronauts to Mars,” while Obama’s version is “a science fair that literally goes nowhere,” misrepresents both plans.

The canceled Constellation program, former NASA administrator Mike Griffin’s flawed implementation of Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration, focused on the moon, and was an unaffordable redo of Apollo, with no capability or plans to go to Mars, and poor prospects for returning to the moon for that matter. What Mr. Thompson derides as a “science fair” is the development of new technologies that will enable affordable visits not just to the moon, but to asteroids, the moons of Mars, the Martian surface, and points beyond — at much lower cost.

On its cost and schedule trajectory, Constellation would have created a gap of at least seven years — until 2017 at the earliest — during which we would have had to continue to purchase Soyuz launches and capsules from Russia, to use for crew changeouts and as lifeboats for the International Space Station. This is particularly ironic, because under the Bush plans, the ISS itself would be abandoned two years earlier, in 2015!

On the other hand, with the new plans, U.S. involvement with the ISS will continue until at least 2020 (and probably beyond). New commercial capabilities to deliver astronauts both to the station and to low-Earth orbit for exploration beyond would become available no later than 2015 (and probably earlier), at a small fraction of the cost of the planned Constellation rocket: the Ares I launcher and Orion crew capsule.

The new NASA plan would make those capabilities available not just to a few NASA civil servants, but to all comers, including private space researchers and sovereign clients (foreign governments) that have signed memoranda of understanding with Bigelow Aerospace to lease its planned orbital facilities, independent of the ISS. 

The U.S. will thereby become a seller of human space transportation services, instead of a supplicant to and purchaser of them from Russia. Call us crazy, but the former plan looks a lot more like the “end of U.S. human spaceflight” than does the latter.

When Thompson writes that “those U.S. ‘entrepreneurs’ needed billions of dollars from the federal government to develop rockets based on old technology before they could take over from the Russians,” we can only shake our heads sadly. 

First, there is no reason for the scare quotes around “entrepreneurs.” Space Exploration Technologies has invested hundreds of millions of its own money to develop its Falcon launcher and Dragon capsule, scheduled to fly next month, for a tiny fraction of the projected cost of Ares/Orion. SpaceX has a huge backlog of orders. In fact, to meet its ISS obligations as soon and cost effectively as possible, NASA needs SpaceX and other commercial crew providers more than SpaceX needs NASA.

Thompson also suggests that NASA’s scrapped plans did not involve “old technology,” when in fact the program was premised on reusing Shuttle components — and thus maintaining their associated jobs, which is why the Shuttle program has remained so expensive and was so popular with politicians.

Finally, when Thompson complains about the long development time for the planned heavy lifter, he implies that such a vehicle is necessary for human exploration beyond Earth orbit. That misconception has been a major stumbling block for such missions ever since humans last walked on the Moon almost 40 years ago. 

In fact, the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed-Martin, has developed and described viable mission scenarios in which lunar missions can be accomplished with existing launch systems. All that is needed is a little innovation, and to break out of the mindset of the Apollo Cargo Cult, in which anything that doesn’t resemble Apollo — a specific destination, a date, and a really big rocket — isn’t a real human exploration program. 

It is time for conservatives to recognize that Apollo is over. We must recognize that Apollo was a centrally planned monopolistic government program for a few government employees, in the service of Cold War propaganda and was therefore itself an affront to American values. If we want to seriously explore, and potentially exploit space, we need to harness private enterprise, and push the technologies really needed to do so.