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

NASA's Excitement Gap

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

It should be noted, however, that advocates continue to lobby Congress to support the Vision, partially out of loyalty, partially from an understanding that NASA can still do things that smaller operators like Scaled Composites or SpaceX cannot do--yet.

Even the large aerospace companies--who most keenly felt Rutan's barbs--had to admit that NASA has not been particularly inspiring. John Stevens from Lockheed-Martin Space Systems expressed concern that the current national space program has failed to inspire young people. He lamented the fact that "there's no excitement in NASA manned programs." Art Stephenson, Sector Vice President, Space Exploration Systems, Northrup-Grumman, admitted, "we don't always pick the hard thing."

Stephenson said that NASA is risk-averse because the voting public does not want to lose another astronaut, and that the risk-averse nature of the program is the biggest stumbling block to inspiring an environment of development or inspiration. Even Bill Nye the Science Guy remarked that "It's easy to bust NASA's chops."

NASA's Changing Role

The conventional wisdom among the NASA/prime contractor community is that government has to plow the way first, and then businesses can take over--a sentiment that was echoed by both John Eldon Vice President and Program Manager, for Boeing's Constellation program and NASA's Deputy Director Shana Dale.

However, some advocates believe the time for businesses to take over space operations is now. According to space policy consultant Jim Muncy, the $500 million Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program represents a breakthrough in NASA thinking about space operations because it really offers the private sector a chance to do what only Russia does now: resupply the International Space Station. Muncy cautioned, however, that private entrepreneurs need to prove their abilities through success first. Prior to the award of COTS, no small aerospace company out of the current group of aspirants has yet launched a payload to orbit.

NASA has also opened up its development process to private and academic innovation by sponsoring the Centennial Challenges, echoing the prizes that built early aviation 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 this year. 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 suborbital tourist 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 a base for space tourism companies when they finally open for business. With multiple private events like this happening, it is hard for advocates to repress the belief that privately funded spaceflight is just around the corner.

Entrepreneurs' Big Dreams

Orbital spaceflight 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 people to the Moon and Mars. Space Adventures, famous for sending Dennis Tito and two other space tourists to the International Space Station, is planning to sell a flight around the Moon for $100 million by 2010.

Meanwhile, in another part of ISDC, space law lecturers were discussing the best way to secure private property rights on lunar resources when a private landing happens. To settle that argument, lawyer Bill White suggested that someone should "just do it." And Peter Diamandis suggested that Mars itself could and would be settled 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, in the face of all this independent-mindedness, many of these same people object strongly to the cuts in NASA's space science budget and feel that the CEV, with its Shuttle-derived hardware, is not ambitious enough. Few people blame Administrator Michael Griffin for NASA's troubles, not even the more outspoken pundits like The Case for Mars author Robert Zubrin or Burt Rutan. There is widespread agreement that NASA does not have the resources to do all of the things it has been asked to do, but there is not much confidence that the political process within Washington will give NASA what it needs to succeed.

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

Once the Shuttle is retired and CEV begins operations, advocates and entrepreneurs will most likely see a mixed space economy: one where government does the more difficult activities, like flying first to the Moon and Mars, while the private sector--both the aerospace giants and the newcomers--slowly builds a respectable commercial presence in Earth orbit. As Jim Muncy put it, "He (Griffin) doesn't want 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.