2004: A Historic Year (But Only If ...)

First in a series of two Commentaries. This article first appeared in Space News and is reproduced with their permission.

It could easily be said that 2004 was one of the most important years for space since the Apollo Moon landings. In fact, as heretical as it might sound, if seen together through the long lens of history, the breakthroughs of 2004 and their effect on the opening of space to humanity may well turn out to be even more pivotal than that incredible event, as spectacular as it was.

There is however one caveat to this assertion. If the processes that began in 2004 are not seized upon and followed up, they might well join the Apollo program as historical dead ends. Why is that? Let's recap three of the highlights, take a look at their real meaning, and then consider what we need to do next.

First, we started the year with the president's announcement that America was going to return to the Moon and establish a permanent presence there and begin the human exploration of Mars. Although often teased for his apparent ignorance, George Bush is one of the few presidents who seem to have grasped the importance of space to our future. His plan has a real frontier flavor, and his goal of keeping it within a budget not only makes it more palatable to Congress, it forces NASA to look at new ways of doing things -- especially in relation to working with the private sector.

No matter what your party persuasion or political leanings, to those who are for the frontier, this is good news. Followed by the report of the Aldridge Commission, this new mandate has created an opening for those in our long moribund space agency who understand what must be done to take action. It is small, tentative and may collapse at any time, but there is a real and growing movement of people in our government who really do get it.

The next event spotlighted the opposite end of the space spectrum. It was the public coming out of the New Space industry, which I define as being made up of firms whose founders and/or investors whose mission is to participate in, profit from or enable the expansion of humanity beyond the Earth. And boy did it happen with a bang.

I recall telling Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during a hearing last winter that by the end of the year the next American would fly in space and that this person would not be a government employee and would do so in a private spaceship. The senator was incredulous. He and most of the others on the committee had no idea they were about to witness the flight of SpaceShipOne a few short months later. Yet, by the end of the summer Burt Rutan and his Scaled Composites team launched the first private citizen into space on a private vehicle.

Beyond breaking records and winning the X Prize, SpaceShipOne's flights drove home the concept that is a cornerstone of the pro-frontier movement -- that space is a place, not a program -- and a place that is open to all who have the capabilities and drive to go there, and not just governments. Capping this great moment and giving it life beyond being just a stunt, was the multi-million dollar contract signed between Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites to build a fleet of new spaceships to carry paying passengers to the edge of space. And so we witnessed the birth of a new industry.

Not nearly as headline making as the first two events, but just as important in assuring the long-term viability of this fledgling industry, the final event occurred in the final hours of the 2004 congressional session. In a nail-biting last minute finish, almost two years of work by a fairly small group of new space firms, pro-frontier space organizations and individuals culminated in the passage of new legislation creating a framework of regulation to enable commercial spaceflight.

Controversial even within the new space movement, the new bill begins, however imperfectly, to create a legal framework for civilian commercial passenger flights into space, an area which had been so ambiguous and confusing that it had hindered the flow of private capital into the field. Without this bill, the flight of SpaceShipOne might well have ended up being just an anomaly, a passing spectacle on the evening news. With it, a whole new industry now has the chance to rise up and begin opening the frontier to the people of this nation and the world.

And then there were the other, amplifying and ancillary events and actions that fed into the revolutionary import of 2004. Among them was the development of the Centennial Challenges prize concept, the offering of the $50 million America's Prize by Robert Bigelow and the certification of the first commercial U.S. spaceport at Mojave, Calif.

So why are these events important and how are they linked? Because, if they turn out to be more than "one off" news bites, they presage a shift in humanity's relationship to space.

Dare I say it, but when taken together, they represent the true beginnings of -- yes, I will say it -- a paradigm shift. The key uniting element between the New Space movement and the president's Moon, Mars and Beyond vision is that our goal in space is now not just to go out there and come back, but to go there, and go out there, and go out there -- this time to stay. Further, space is now seen as a frontier, a frontier to be opened to all, accessed by all and utilized for all.

As is the case the day after all great changes or revolutions are incited, now the hard work begins. Much of what has to be done now is not as glamorous or visible as a rocket flight, nor as immediate and clear as a presidential speech, but things that must be done if those moments and the other pro-frontier actions just taken are to be turned into a real and lasting legacy.

Next week: what it takes to bring visions to reality.

Rick N. Tumlinson is the founder of the Space Frontier Foundation. He is currently editing his new book "Return To The Moon" due for release Summer 2005.

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