Thursday, June 02, 2005

Leave The Driving To Us?

Deep in this story (click here) about the failure of NASA to examine low-cost alternatives to using the Space Shuttle for International Space Station missions is this quote:

"A new cargo-only module could be employed to replace the lost shuttle missions, [new NASA head Mike] Griffin said. The Agency [NASA] is currently examining proposals from 26 companies who want to ship cargo to the space station."

This quote illustrates a crossroads for NASA. The first sentence seems to describe an alternative to using the shuttle to supply the space station but one that still relies on a government owned and flown spaceship. Cheaper than the shuttle but not necessarily the cheapest or best way to go. The second sentence in the quote holds more promise for developing space. What that sentence means is there are a host of companies who are willing to tell NASA to "leave the driving to us" if NASA will pay them. This is evidence that a private space industry is poised to fly. It's also evidence that a lucrative market in the near term for that industry is likely to rely on the government as a customer.

The GAO has issued a short report (click here) criticizing NASA for failing to examine all alternatives to the shuttle for supplying the ISS. That report touts commercial launch options while also acknowledging there is a several year lead time for getting off the ground.

Still the exploration of space is a long-term project. If one compares how long it took humans to spread from Africa and cover the Earth to how long we've been in space, it's clear we are in the infancy of our migration off our home planet. NASA could bring down future costs enormously for doing the ordinary things in space in Low Earth Orbit if it would purchase services for those things. Transporting cargo to LEO should be done using the cheapest possible method of transportation. The competition inherent in the private sector is an effective way to find that cheaper road to space.

A speaker at this year's Space Access Conference in Phoenix cited the development of the North Slope in Alaska as an example. That development required transporting large amounts of material and smaller numbers of people to a distant and inhospitable location. Safety concerns and the profit motive meant that people were sent using more expensive transportation but supplies were sent using the cheapest transportation they could find. There is no reason why the same principle should not apply to the development of space.

Let's hope that under Mike Griffin and the Space Vision Thing NASA finally begins to rely on one of this country's guiding principles, a belief in free markets, to get us off the ground and into the cosmos.


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