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The Brave New World of American Commercial Space

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NASA administrator Charles Bolden confirmed last week that his agency will not be sending a manned mission to the moon. The idea of U.S. astronauts revisiting the moon has been floating around since President George W. Bush announced his Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) in January 2004, calling for the development of the Ares V rocket and Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle as part of the Constellation program. Ares V/Orion aimed to land astronauts on the moon by 2020 and recapture the glory of the Apollo era.

But there was never a reasonable explanation for why the U.S. should spend billions of dollars for a repeat performance of what it had done in 1969. The report issued by the Aldridge Commission on Moon, Mars and Beyond in June 2004 was superficial and uninspiring. It had lots of pretty, glossy pictures, but it was not a serious document making a solid case for committing so much of our national attention and treasure. Of course, there was the usual mining for minerals and drilling for energy enticements... without giving the prerequisite attention to the prohibitive hauling costs of it all.

Rather than analyzing whether or not the VSE made any sense or could even be funded, given NASA's extremely limited budgets and already sizeable workload, the Aldridge Commission chose simply to rubber stamp the Bush administration's vague wish to do something new, different and exciting in space that could take the country's mind off the previous year's tragic loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia and its crew.

I remember giving testimony before the Aldridge Commission in Atlanta in March 2004. It struck me that the commission was preoccupied with receiving commentary on why the VSE was such a wonderful idea and suggestions about the kind of neat things that could be done on the moon, and eventually on Mars. Some of the committee members actually appeared annoyed at any suggestion about considering the costs involved and whether future NASA budgets would be remotely adequate for the undertaking.

It was as if everyone on the committee believed that Congress could easily be swayed (repeatedly) and that the money would magically appear at the right time, because the cause was right -- as if they didn't want to waste time discussing such a boorish topic as financing. The Kool-Aid was just too tasty.

There was never anywhere near enough money in NASA budgets to fully fund and complete Constellation. Probably everyone in the U.S. space industry knew this at some level, but preferred to remain in blissful denial and ride the program as long as possible. After all, there was nothing else that lucrative on the horizon. The Space Shuttle program was coming to end and so was the assembly of the International Space Station (ISS).

To its credit, the Obama administration did the kind thing and cancelled Constellation on February 1, 2010, and simultaneously put an end to the horribly-conceived VSE. In its place came a new vision to begin shifting to a greater reliance on commercial companies for spaceflight requirements. Constellation, as did the ill-fated VentureStar program before it, demonstrated that NASA does not have the level of funding it needs to develop, own, and operate a follow-on to the Space Shuttle. It also showed that, if you're going to try and do so, you had better have one hell of a reason for justifying that vehicle's existence.

Neither going to the moon or Mars was it. Not because the trips couldn't be worthwhile, but because NASA had failed to offer an acceptable explanation as to why humankind should make such trips and thereby divert money that could be used to make life on earth better.

Those who consistently point to John F. Kennedy's Moon Speech of 1961 and the success of the Apollo program, and argue that the U.S. should use this as a model are wrong and are sadly stuck in their childhood. That model, based on a race against the Soviet Union, is now half a century old. We have to come up with something vastly more interesting and inspiring than a race to see who can get from point A to point B first, plant a flag, and declare victory.

Ever since Constellation was axed, many within the space industry have been warning about the loss of U.S. leadership in space. They claim that Americans are ceding the high frontier to the Russians, the Chinese, and the Indians, who are all busy investing growing sums of cash in their national space programs and planning visits to the moon. You know, the kind of stuff that makes a nation feel tingly and superior all over.

They say that the move to lease capacity on private launch vehicles and capsules represents a step backward and proves that the US is becoming a second-rate space power. This is the main reason that the Obama administration, with a lot of political arm twisting, proposed the Space Launch System (SLS) in 2011 -- a massive expendable launch vehicle set for initial flight in 2017.

Yep, another NASA-owned and -operated rocket. It's not clear where the money to fully develop the vehicle will come from, particularly now with all them sequestration cutbacks. Forget any increases in NASA's budget any time soon. The agency will be lucky to keep what it has. This year, NASA is going to have to manage with $1.2 billion less than it received in 2012. That's a lot of money for an agency that's been having to make do with an annual budget of $17 to $18 billion.

The agency will do all it can to save the SLS and other systems it considers to be high priority. But, honestly, everything points to the eventual cancellation of SLS. It's only a matter of time, really. The money is not there, and -- more importantly -- neither is the mission. Initially, the primary mission of the SLS was to launch astronauts to the moon. Well, not so, says Mr. Bolden.

Ironically, ever since Constellation's nixing, while so many have been preaching the end of U.S. space preeminence and the lack of a vision for human spaceflight and exploration, the shift to a commercially-led, government-facilitated space market has been proceeding. Every few months, you hear about private ventures looking to send robotic spacecraft to mine on asteroids and manned spacecraft to do flybys of Mars.

You hear about firms wanting to set up inflatable hotels in low earth orbit, colonize the moon, colonize Mars. Not in 20 or 30 years, as NASA has a penchant for predicting, but within the next 10 years. Yeah, it will probably take longer, but it's a whole lot more fun dreaming a decade ahead.

Maybe most fascinating of all, you hear what appear to be radical concepts being tossed around, such as the idea that those who will commit to colonizing Mars will not be returning to Earth; they will stay and live out the rest of their lives there, like most of the settlers who went West in the 1800s or most of the immigrants to America who left their homes behind in Europe. It exemplifies a serious commitment that would make anyone take notice.

And also there's the absolutely jolting phrasing that makes you go, "Whoa, I never quite thought of it like that!" Like the time SpaceX's Elon Musk said he envisioned colonizing Mars and establishing a "dual-planet civilization." That phrase really bowled me over. It instantly made me want to believe what seems utterly out of reach. Or how about Alexandra Hall of the X-Prize Foundation. She referred to one of the goals of the Google Lunar X Prize as being "to move our economic sphere beyond Earth." Simple, but oh so powerful.

Companies such as Bigelow Aerospace, Mars Foundation, Mars One, Planetary Resources, SpaceX, and others are fast becoming the pioneers of the new commercial space paradigm that has been delayed due to NASA's dominance of the industry for so long. The development and maturation of this paradigm will depend on how much NASA wishes to allow private industry to lead the way and instead resigning itself to serve as a facilitator rather than in its traditional role as boss.

All the private space sector needs is a consistent, sustained series of incentives and research and development investments from NASA -- in much the same way that the U.S. government provided the railroad, automobile, and aircraft industries in their early years. The space industry evolved differently from rail, auto, and aircraft because it was viewed as too technologically complex and dangerous for anyone other than government to lead. Companies like SpaceX have suddenly invalidated this theory, opening up all kinds of possibilities for innovation and exploration that were not seriously contemplated only a few years ago.

Ceding America's leadership in space, world passing us by? Uh, nothing could be farther from the truth.