Skip to main content

Space Access: The Private Investment vs. Public Funding Debate

If you wereto believe many of the speakers at this year's International Space DevelopmentConference (ISDC), entrepreneurs like Burt Rutan and non-profit CEOs like PeterDiamandis are prepared to go it alone into space. In his opening remarks, Rutanstated that "Taxpayer-funded research makes absolutely no sense" and likenedthe current Vision for Space Exploration to an exercise in archeology. Diamandissaid, "We need to get off the government dole."

NASA's Excitement Gap

What isfuelling this libertarian streak in the space advocacy community? For starters,NASA has been struggling to get the Shuttle returned to flight, while smallprivate ventures like Rutan's success with SpaceShipOne in 2004 have generatedexcitement in a way the Vision for Space Exploration has not.

It shouldbe noted, however, that advocates continue to lobby Congress to support theVision, partially out of loyalty, partially from an understanding that NASA canstill do things that smaller operators like Scaled Composites or SpaceX cannotdo--yet.

Even thelarge aerospace companies--who most keenly felt Rutan's barbs--had to admit thatNASA has not been particularly inspiring. John Stevens from Lockheed-MartinSpace Systems expressed concern that the current national space program hasfailed to inspire young people. He lamented the fact that "there's noexcitement in NASA manned programs." Art Stephenson, Sector Vice President,Space Exploration Systems, Northrup-Grumman, admitted, "we don't always pickthe hard thing."

Stephensonsaid that NASA is risk-averse because the voting public does not want to loseanother astronaut, and that the risk-averse nature of the program is thebiggest stumbling block to inspiring an environment of development orinspiration. Even Bill Nye the Science Guy remarked that "It's easy to bustNASA's chops."

NASA's Changing Role

Theconventional wisdom among the NASA/prime contractor community is thatgovernment has to plow the way first, and then businesses can take over--asentiment that was echoed by both John Eldon Vice President and ProgramManager, for Boeing's Constellation program and NASA's Deputy Director ShanaDale.

However, someadvocates believe the time for businesses to take over space operations is now.According to space policy consultant Jim Muncy, the $500 million CommercialOrbital Transportation Services (COTS) program represents a breakthrough inNASA thinking about space operations because it really offers the private sectora chance to do what only Russia does now: resupply the International SpaceStation. Muncy cautioned, however, that private entrepreneurs need to provetheir abilities through success first. Prior to the award of COTS, no smallaerospace company out of the current group of aspirants has yet launched apayload to orbit.

NASA hasalso opened up its development process to private and academic innovation bysponsoring the Centennial Challenges, echoing the prizes that built earlyaviation and, of course, the X-Prize. The latest Centennial Challenge--the Lunar Lander Analog--will be administered by the X-Prize Foundation in October of thisyear. That Challenge will occur during the X-Prize Cup in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where Diamandis and company will be presiding over the latest round of suborbitaltourist hopefuls as well as rocket-powered aircraft races. The State of New Mexico itself has passed legislation to build a $225 million spaceport to provide abase for space tourism companies when they finally open for business. Withmultiple private events like this happening, it is hard for advocates torepress the belief that privately funded spaceflight is just around the corner.

Entrepreneurs' Big Dreams

Orbitalspaceflight is not the only place where the new entrepreneurs have set their sights.SpaceX's President Elon Musk indicated that he eventually wants to send peopleto the Moon and Mars. Space Adventures, famous for sending Dennis Tito and twoother space tourists to the International Space Station, is planning to sell aflight around the Moon for $100 million by 2010.

Meanwhile,in another part of ISDC, space law lecturers were discussing the best way tosecure private property rights on lunar resources when a private landinghappens. To settle that argument, lawyer Bill White suggested that someone should"just do it." And Peter Diamandis suggested that Mars itself could and would besettled by private citizens before NASA. He believes space enthusiasts should"give up on government." Virgin Galactic's Wil Whitehorn indicated that "It[the private sector] can't get hooked on government money."

NASA's Clouded Future

And yet, inthe face of all this independent-mindedness, many of these same people objectstrongly to the cuts in NASA's space science budget and feel that the CEV, withits Shuttle-derived hardware, is not ambitious enough. Few people blame AdministratorMichael Griffin for NASA's troubles, not even the more outspoken pundits like TheCase for Mars author Robert Zubrin or Burt Rutan. There is widespreadagreement that NASA does not have the resources to do all of the things it hasbeen asked to do, but there is not much confidence that the political processwithin Washington will give NASA what it needs to succeed.

Zubrinblames the lack of ambition at NASA on President Bush, saying that thePresident put off exploration of the Moon until after he is out of office.Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin expressed concern that, come the next presidentialelection, the Vision might be scrapped for partisan reasons, leading him toask, "Do we align [behind the Vision] or do we not?"

Once theShuttle is retired and CEV begins operations, advocates and entrepreneurs willmost likely see a mixed space economy: one where government does the moredifficult activities, like flying first to the Moon and Mars, while the privatesector--both the aerospace giants and the newcomers--slowly builds a respectablecommercial presence in Earth orbit. As Jim Muncy put it, "He (Griffin) doesn'twant to need us, but NASA can't do it all."

Bart Leahy is a technical writer and National Space Society member living in Alexandria, Virginia.

NOTE: The views of this article are the author's and do not reflect the policies of the National Space Society.

Visit SPACE.com/Ad Astra Online for more news, views and scientific inquiry from the National Space Society.

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: community@space.com.