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Government and Space: Lead, Follow, and Get Out of the Way

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2012 will be seen as the beginning of the frontier era in space. By 2030 there will be people on the Moon, on Mars, and in the free space between worlds. The first permanent communities beyond Earth will be founded, the first major products and inventions created there will have long since changed the markets and medical establishments of the planet, the first harvests of resources and energy from space will begin, and the first fortunes based on frontier-related activities in space will be made.

2012 will see those committed to settling space (O'Neillians) begin orbital delivery operations, private microgravity experiments on the space station, and sub-orbital, commercial, human space-flight tests. Recently, the revolution jumped another level, as a commercial space-station company announced it is partnering with a commercial spaceflight firm, thus completely eliminating the government from the equation.

And yet, even as some of today's savviest and wealthiest business leaders begin to dive into this new ocean of possibility, many of yesterday's space heroes, our government and political class, don't get it.

The irony should not be lost that this same year, a presidential candidate got laughed off the campaign stage for suggesting a human colony on the Moon -- just days before a group of American entrepreneurs worth tens of billions of dollars announced plans to mine asteroids.

It is a disconnect of historic proportions and begs the questions: Although space exploration began in the U.S.A., what role will Americans play in the space revolution, and will it be with the support of or in spite of our own government?

The answers will determine not only the future of our nation and economy but the speed and scale of the most important leap forward in the history of our species. But we must be willing to look at the stark reality of where we are right now and what must be done to assure that what we do next in space is the right thing to do.

Of course, we can continue the current path. NASA can waffle and pick itself apart as those who try to embrace a new American space agenda battle those who are simply waiting for the good ol' days to return. (News flash: They won't. No matter who wins the election, "old space" is over.)

Congress can of course continue its absurd waste of taxpayer funds on socialist dream rockets and ignore the potential market and job-creating power of those same dollars invested in a "new space" industry that is about to do the same job better, more cheaply, and more quickly anyway. Challenge-averse so-called leaders can continue to ignore the obvious reason and rationale for even sending humans into space, lest it mean they have to act, and in their denial doom our once-proud human space program to oblivion -- even as their own citizens make it so.

But know this: None of the above will mean the end of the space settlement revolution. It simply means that billions of our money will be wasted on dead ends rather than used to catalyze and support a new path into the future, and as this becomes ever more clear, Washington will become ever more irrelevant, and NASA will become an embarrassing anachronism as it fades into obscurity in the realm of human spaceflight, if it continues to exist at all, as its remaining functions are carved up among other agencies, and a chance is missed to combine the depth of our legacy with the promise of our future.

NASA's irrelevance and absence from this revolution may actually be a good thing in some people's minds, to be sure, but why waste our space legacy? And given that we have decided to invest several billion dollars in space each year, I would hate to see it just go away, leaving just a bunch of bad policies and laws behind to slow things down.

So what can our government do right now to support rather than impede the American-led opening of the grandest frontier of all time? And how does NASA stay relevant? Simple: Lead, follow, and get out of the way:

  • Lead: Declare that our national goal in space is settlement and resource development. (Pass a new Space Settlement Act.) Implement pro-settlement laws and policies. (Take an aggressive stand on property and IP rights of U.S. citizens and companies in space.) Focus tax dollars on advanced science, astronomy, exploration, and research beyond the reach of commercial investment. Support the genius of American space enterprise. (For example, make space investment a tax-exempt activity.) Fund STEM initiatives.
  • Follow: Purchase goods and services from commercial vendors in every possible area of activity. (Buy the ride, not the rocket!) Don't duplicate private research using tax dollars. Offer prizes and support activities and areas of advancement critical to knowledge and technology development but not yet in the realm of commercial investment. Become a solid customer for data and information acquisition from space.
  • Get out of the way: Rewrite the International Traffic in Arms Regulations and other laws blocking U.S. firms from interactions with international partners. (Lower the paperwork so small businesses can afford to work globally.) Drop the Federal Acquisition Regulation for contracts and get creative using shared-risk research and pay-for-delivery purchases. (Use common-sense commercial best practices for acquisition.) Move to the edge and build in commercial handoff from the beginning of exploration plans (e.g., practice for Mars on the Moon, then hand off the infrastructure needed to do so.)

It is the perfect time to act, to rise up out of the mediocrity that threatens to ensnare us and reach -- no, grasp -- the stars. And we can do it. The Apollo generation wasn't a historical fluke. It was the predictable result of what happens when a free nation actually decides on something and goes for it. We can do it again, do it better, and do it for keeps this time. But we must decide: Will America as a nation support the settlement of space?

Our new leaders are out there right now, watching the Science Channel after school; working on the shop floors of "new space" firms; building, blowing up, and building again the rockets of tomorrow in schools and labs and abandoned airfields across the nation; and pouring their fortunes into a dream given to them by those who once took us to the Moon. Yet this time they are determined to not just get there and plant the flag but go beyond, open Mars and free space itself, build new civilizations, and create new wealth for all humanity.

Those people and institutions who once led can still participate. They can even help lead if they act wisely and make the right choices. If they follow the evidence all around them, they will see that it is a new day in space, and they must embrace it not just for the good of this nation but for their own survival, lest they be pushed out of the way and left to wander in the wilderness of "remember when."

Meanwhile, we are moving out and up, with them or in spite of them.