In the words of the late, great gonzo journalist, Hunter S. Thompson, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” That’s comforting to know because the future of America’s space exploration program has suddenly gotten weird, and the last thing you need when that happens is amateurs calling the shots.
It all started getting weird back in 2004 when President Bush announced that, after nearly 30 years of service, NASA’s space shuttles would be retired in 2010 following completion of the International Space Station (ISS). The plan was to replace the aging shuttles with a new Crew Exploration Vehicle, a.k.a. Orion, which would make its maiden voyage in 2014 as part of the ambitious Constellation program. Those with an aptitude for math quickly realized that left a four-year gap where U.S. astronauts would either have to remain earthbound, or rely on hitching rides back and forth to the space station aboard Russian owned and operated spacecraft.
To those of us who grew up during the cold war – which is what drove America into the space race to begin with – that didn’t seem like such a good idea. Granted, the cold war has been over for decades, and if anyone knows how to run a space taxi service, the Russians do. Since 2001, anybody with a taste for adventure and $20-30 million to burn could buy a seat on one of their Soyuz spacecraft and vacation aboard the ISS. But given the fragile relationship between the U.S. and Russia, the slightest amount of friction could put our entire space program in jeopardy, or at the very least make it hostage to the whims of a foreign government. Kind of a weird approach for the world’s leader in space exploration to take, wouldn’t you say?
But wait, it gets even weirder. When the White House released its proposed 2011 budget last month, one of the items they cut was the Constellation program. It’s not that they don’t want American astronauts to explore space anymore; they do, and they proved it by adding $6 billion to NASA’s budget over the next five years so they can develop the necessary technology to do so. They just don’t want that technology to include new spacecraft for such mundane tasks as commuting back and forth to the ISS or traveling to the moon.
So, just how are our astronauts supposed to get there, aside from hailing a Russian space taxi? With good, old-fashioned American ingenuity and profit-driven, private, commercial enterprise. I kid you not. According to information distributed by NASA, the agency has been directed “…to partner with the aerospace industry in a fundamentally new way, making commercially provided services the primary mode of astronaut transportation to the International Space Station. This new policy harnesses our nation’s entrepreneurial energies, and will create thousands of new jobs and catalyze the development of other new businesses that capitalize on affordable human access to space.”
“Entrepreneurial energies”? Those wouldn’t, by any chance, be the same entrepreneurial energies that recently led to the near total collapse of two of our three major automakers and many of our biggest financial institutions, would they? The same entrepreneurial energies that exported most of our manufacturing capabilities overseas to capitalize on cheaper production costs, sometimes at the expense of better quality? And if you want to see how well entrepreneurial energies work for fare-paying passengers in a transportation setting, one need only look at what the commercial airline industry has degenerated into these days. Does anyone believe air travel is better today than it was, say, ten years ago?
I assume our astronauts would receive much better treatment from whatever commercial entity is selected to ferry them into space, but the point I am trying to make is this. With NASA designed, built and operated spacecraft, no expense was spared and no stone was left unturned to ensure the safety of the crew and the success of the mission. Yes, accidents happened – space travel is a dangerous pursuit – but it was never because corners were cut. Would a profit-driven, commercial entity go to equivalent lengths to ensure such a high degree of safety and success? Or would they look at the bottom line, weigh it against the risks, and then roll the dice, figuring our legal system gives commercial entities escape options that NASA doesn’t have should something go horribly wrong?
I certainly hope not. But looking back at what our “entrepreneurial energies” have done for us over the last 2 - 3 years, I have my doubts. What do you think?