Celebrate the Future

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Thirty-four years ago yesterday, on July 16, 1969, a Saturn launch vehicle thundered into orbit from Cape Canaveral (search). Four days later (the anniversary is this coming Sunday), men walked on the moon (search).

I hope that everyone commemorates this event properly on July 20, but it's also appropriate at this time to take stock of our progress in opening that new frontier, over a third of a century after that momentous event--one as significant in its way as when life first crawled out of the ocean onto the land, hundreds of millions of years ago.

In the minds of many, the space shuttle and space station were the "next logical step" from Apollo (search), but they're bogged down in politics and bureaucracy, and offer little hope of playing a significant role in frontier opening--it could be argued that in fact they are a diversion from our future in space. Almost half a year after the loss of Columbia, there's a report about to come out that will, if initial rumors prove true, be devastating to the space agency in terms of its management of the program, and the future of the shuttle.

In fact, by almost any conventional measure, our civil space program, and even our commercial space industry, is a disaster. In the face of a glut of launch and space bandwidth capacity (search) (due to a dramatic drop in projected commercial payloads), Boeing is withdrawing its new Delta IV (search) launcher from the shrinking commercial market, preferring to focus on government payloads, betting on increasing military needs and the Orbital Space Plane (search). Add to this the fact that Loral, a major satellite manufacturer, has declared bankruptcy.

In fact, the space industry, properly defined, is not growing, but shrinking. Its total annual revenue is currently less than $40 billion. That may sound like a lot of money, but consider that it's less than the revenue of several top Fortune 500 companies, and it's not a company, it's an entire industry, and much of it consists of NASA (search) and military contracts, not commercial services.

Over the past almost half a century since NASA was chartered, the taxpayers have put hundreds of billions of dollars into space (not even including the military space expenditures, which were at least as much). I don't know what's typical, but I would think the taxpayers would expect a little more leverage than this, particularly given the paucity of science from the manned space program since Apollo (which is ostensibly, at least according to many of its defenders, the purpose of the program).

There's not only a glut of launch capacity on the market, but due to continually shrinking NASA plans, we also have a surplus of astronauts, at least of the NASA variety. Few of them will have an opportunity to fly in the next few years, and many may never fly at all--after all of the investment in their training, they're simply overpaid engineers on the program. The devastating effect on the morale of people who have supposedly achieved what for many was a lifelong dream can't be overstated.

In the wake of all of this, in the inglorious present, it's not unreasonable on this anniversary of a glorious past for taxpayers to ask what they're getting for their money.

It's a particularly pertinent question when they don't see any plans from the space agency for anything better. The original plan for the Orbital Space Plane was for it to fly sometime in the next decade. I've stated reasons why I think that the OSP, or any "crew transfer vehicle," is the wrong direction for the agency. Others have as well. Naturally, since it's a bad thing to do, they now want to do it sooner.

Like many things about NASA (and life in general), it brings to my mind a Simpsons moment.

Specifically, the one in which Homer decides to change his name. The new moniker?

MAX POWER...(He got it off a hair dryer...)

He says, "...there are two [sic] ways to do something: the right way, the wrong way, and the Max Power way."

When son Bart asks what the latter means, the reply is, "It's like the wrong way, except faster!"

So, if you're a glass-half-empty sort, the outlook on this anniversary may be pretty bleak. Fortunately, I'm the other kind, and one has to look beyond the traditional indicators. When one does so, things are actually more encouraging, at least for me, than they've been in many years.

Private enterprise is finally stepping up to the plate. The X-Prize is now fully funded, with a time limit of the end of next year, and a number of competitors are funded and vigorously pursuing it. Interestingly, in the face of NASA's astronaut oversupply, the Canadian Arrow team has already announced their private astronaut candidates, and they're excited, with probably a better chance of flying soon.

And for those who scoff at the X-Prize as a "stunt," other companies have already moved beyond it and are funding commercial and affordable suborbital, and even orbital space transports.

Of course, there will always be bumps in the road, and they're not all technological. The regulatory situation at the Department of Transportation remains confused (making it more unnecessarily difficult to raise full funding from investors wary of uncertainty). In the true spirit of being from the government and here to help us, NASA has come out with a new set of guidelines for "human rating" spacecraft (guidelines that few, if any, of their own systems have ever met, including the shuttle).

Let us hope that they're ignored by the regulators, because I suspect that if the fledgling industry has to comply with them, it will remain fledgling. In any event, with enough pressure on the administration and the Congress, those issues may soon be resolved, paving the way for a new and vibrant private space age.

So during this anniversary week, let's celebrate past achievement, perhaps mankind's and life's greatest to date, ignore a dying socialist aerospace industry paradigm, and look forward to a free-enterprise future consisting not of one small step for a man, but of many thousands and millions of steps into the cosmos for mankind.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.

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