Those of us sandwiched between the end of the Baby Boom and the start of Generation X ought to be thought of as The Apollo Generation. We were captivated by the reality of manned space flight and the idea that we too might someday walk on the moon before double digit interest rates, Jimmy Carter, and malaise ruined the rest of our otherwise secure childhoods.
Nothing that’s followed has been quite as cool. We’ve learned a lot from the Hubble telescope and the Mars landers, but for all intents and purposes we’re all here, stuck on Planet Earth until someone figures out a way to change that.
The government’s given this a lot of thought, but as of now the only way they’re getting anyone back to the Moon is by stacking all the reports NASA’s commissioned on top of one another and letting someone stand on them. To get back into space, to get there permanently, is only going to happen as the result of private initiative of the kind shown by Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and others putting their own (and their investors’) money on the line to build the reusable infrastructure needed to make travel beyond the atmosphere a reality. What they’ve got planned is a quantum leap ahead of their current status as “carriers for hire,” contractors delivering payloads to the International Space Station and putting satellites in orbit. They’re launching rockets that soar to the edge of the atmosphere and return, landing, upright, “as God and Heinlein intended.”
These endeavors are as technologically complex as they are exciting. The competition between the billionaire space pioneers has sparked a new race for space from which we will all benefit, as long as the government stays out of the way.
Up to this point it’s not been difficult. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has said on serval occasions he’s “not a big fan” of private, commercial efforts to build rockets that will be able to escape low-Earth orbit and return. He wants that job left to “the professionals” - meaning the U.S. government.
Bolden’s entitled to his opinion but, up to now, Bezos, Branson, Musk, and the others have told him, figuratively speaking, to go fly a kite. After the neglect Bolden’s agency was shown during the Obama years, that may be just about all it can do.
None of us want the government controlling access to deep space or picking winners and losers in the race to get there. That’s why it’s so disappointing that Elon Musk’s SpaceX recently announced it wanted the U.S. government’s financial backing to go where no private sector firm has gone before. Tim Hughes, SpaceX’s senior vice president for global business and government affairs, told the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness, “The principles applied in past programs for low-Earth orbit capability can and should be applied to deep space exploration.”
If that sounds like a make work subsidy, it is. He wants NASA to come up with jobs in deep space it will pay the private sector to do, thus underwriting the expensive process of research and development to get SpaceX products there and back.
This is not the kind of entrepreneurial effort the Apollo generation can get excited about it. It would transform the private race to space into just another government boondoggle. We expect some rate of failure - Musk’s company has had its share along the way - on the way to success. Most people don’t remember the early days when rockets exploded on the launch pad or had to be destroyed in flight because they were not behaving as they were programmed to. It took a long time to get from that point to the Moon. And it will take just as long, if the government is in charge and enforcing a Lowest Price Technology Acceptable on those with whom it contracts, to get back. That approach didn’t help the Space Shuttle very much, which is why today they’re all in museums.
It isn’t a matter of cost alone. The spirit of mankind, our need for adventure is wrapped up in what these companies are doing. They have a plan - in the broadest sense - to make travel into deep space for commercial and recreational purposes a common event for people living among us right now. Anyone who wants the government’s assistance needs to present a plan to insure the taxpayers’ money is not wasted - but that takes the romance and adventure out of things.
Instead, let’s just leave it to the private markets and the innovators, who are dreaming the big dreams.
Roff is a former senior political writer for UPI and a well-known commentator based in Washington, D.C. Email him at Peter.Roff@Verizon.net.