How can the US move forward on manned space exploration
I recently tried to post the following to a Space.com forum asking where the candidates stand on the space program:
I’m a lifelong space enthusiast. I readily admit that I still get teary-eyed when I see pictures of American bootprints on the moon; the Apollo program remains the greatest engineering achievement in human history. My father worked on the Apollo program at KSC, I went to college and got an engineering degree with the intent of working on manned space, and ten years later I took a job as a Shuttle engineer at JSC (and quit in disgust after a year).
The sorry fact is that long before I came on board, the Shuttle program had descended into what can charitably be described as a placeholder for some future American manned space initiative, and at worst be considered a jobs program for white, educated, middle class people (mostly men).
Fifty years of top-down government operation of space exploration gave us ten years of explosive progress followed by four unbroken decades of bureaucratic inertia. The Shuttle itself was a disastrous experiment in over-engineering that never met a fraction of its design criteria and should have either been privatized after the last test flight, or retired after the Challenger disaster. The ISS, which became the Shuttle’s final raison d’etra was, and remains, a solution looking for a problem.
While it’s easy to want to lay this at the feet of an American electorate that lacks the political will to take the Next Big Step, the problem really has its roots in the structure of the agency itself. Anyone who’s studied the history of the space program recognizes that the surprising part of the equation isn’t the inertia, it’s the early successes. By standards of government management practices, the “meatball logo” NASA of the 60’s was “poorly run”, while the stunningly ineffectual NASA of the 70’s and beyond (the years of the “worm” logo) was a shining example of how a government agency should operate. This isn’t unique to NASA, it’s an unavoidable consequence of operating as a government agency; never mind the fact that after 50 years of spending, our space-faring population amounts to fewer than 300 Americans, the important thing is that every dime is properly accounted for and the proper paperwork is on file. The simple truth is that being a well-run government agency is simply not compatible with being an innovative, aggressive engineering organization.
And at the end of the day, do we really have the right to ask the American taxpayers to borrow another trillion dollars in the middle of a “recovery” in order to fund a grandiose dream that they no longer share with us?
After 50 years of government-funded “incubation”, it’s time for American space exploration to leave the nest and move into the private sector. The results aren’t likely to be pretty (particularly not when we look at the “killer aps” that built the success of the VCR, the PC, and the internet), but we’re a lot more likely to see ANY results from the private sector than we are from another 50 years of politicians using space exploration as a government publicity stunt.
We need to stop asking which candidate is going to throw more taxpayer money at the problem. What we need to start asking is which candidate will do more to help the privatization. This isn’t going to be a simple process. I envision a campaign that includes privatization of infrastructure, multi-year purchases of launch and operations services, challenge awards, assignment of government patents, streamlining of regulatory processes and other innovative approaches.
I’m not fond of the current president (and hopefully that won’t qualify this as “hate speech”) but I have to say that some progress has already been made by NASA in this direction, though I feel that most of this has been the result of benign neglect from the administration rather than a strategic vision. I do believe that Romney’s background is far more in line with this, but I’ve seen and heard nothing that makes me has this vision, either.