April 11, 2013
The separation of space and state.
It’s been pursued by astute advocates for manned exploration of
the cosmos since the 1980s, and now, success is within reach. Predictably, the
nation’s astro-crats aren’t surrendering their fiefdom without a struggle.
Armstrong’s bootprints in moondust avenged the shock of Sputnik, interest
in NASA’s missions fizzled. With no funding forthcoming for bases on Luna or Mars,
the agency got what revenue it could from a cabal of congressional patrons, and
proceeded with the design, construction, and operation of the space shuttle.
An online commenter
once labeled the Space
Transportation System “the most unaffordable/expensive, dangerous,
unreliable space vehicle in history.” Costly and lethal it was, but the shuttle
employed an army of voters -- er, workers -- scattered across dozens of states.
Observing NASA’s 45th birthday in 2003, the trade publication Space News admitted that “the de facto goal
of the human spaceflight program is to protect jobs and dollars that get
divided among the agency field centers involved in that enterprise.”
Gobs of resources, coupled with puny results, yielded additional
apathy. In 2011, the shuttle (total cost: $209 billion) was retired with little
outcry. And U.S.
involvement in the International Space Station (ISS) has failed to generate much
excitement. A recent report
by the National Research Council icily concluded that support for NASA “is
thin when the billion-dollar cost of major … programs is revealed and/or when
surveys ask the public to prioritize NASA activities with other government
functions such as national defense, education, public health, and so on.”
As NASA approaches metaphysical irrelevancy, private efforts to
get mankind off-planet multiply. Some highlights: Entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX is modifying its Dragon cargo
capsule to launch crews atop the company’s breathtakingly low-cost rockets. Richard
Galactic is nearly ready to loft tourists from a spaceport in New Mexico. Unilever’s Axe
line of products is sponsoring
a contest for similar suborbital flights. Hotel magnate Robert Bigelow plans
to put inflatable habitats in orbit.
In February, a new nonprofit organization announced a wildly
ambitious exploration proposal. The Inspiration
Mars Foundation wants to set out for the Red Planet -- not in 50 or even 20
years, but on January 5, 2018. The project envisions a husband-and-wife-crewed,
501-day, slingshot journey. Taking advantage of a “rare planetary alignment,”
the “fast, free-return” mission would “spend about ten hours within 100,000 km”
of its target, and use “proven, existing space transportation systems.”
Critics scoff that without a landing, the trip will neither
educate nor inspire. But recall Apollo
8, which looped around the moon in 1968. The “Earthrise” photograph, and
the crew’s reading
from Genesis on Christmas Eve, were enormously influential.
Other than the trifling matters of funding, technology, and
personnel, the foundation faces a challenge that could prove insurmountable:
the aerospace-industrial complex. According to the indefatigable website NASA
Watch, under “pressure” from the Marshall Space Flight Center and Lyndon
B. Johnson Space Center, “Inspiration Mars is now considering [the] use of [a]
single launch” of the Space Launch System
(SLS) for its mission.
Translation: NASA and its corporate-welfare
contractors want in on the Mars action.
The SLS is a gargantuan, congressionally designed, yet-to-launch
rocket. Its purpose is murky -- a firm destination for the vehicles it would one
day propel doesn’t exist. If history
is instructive, it’s likely that years of “schedule slippage” and massive
cost overruns will lead to the SLS’s cancelation.
Besides, of all Earthlings, Inspiration Mars Foundation Chairman
Dennis Tito knows NASA’s
nature. He was the first tourist to pay his own way to space -- in 2001, Russia
sold him a short stay at the ISS. NASA’s reaction was petty and petulant. At
Johnson, it barred Tito from a week of cross-training for the American portion
of the station. NASA’s boorish
administrator compared the financier and former Jet Propulsion Laboratory
employee unfavorably to “American patriot” James Cameron,
a Canadian, who was willing to wait for an agency-approved ride. (Big surprise:
Over a decade later, NASA still hasn’t gotten the director orbital.)
Today’s space pioneers frequently speak of Apollo’s role in
inspiring them to pursue careers in science, math, engineering, and computers. Several
of their companies have received relatively small subsidies from NASA, and SpaceX
is currently ferrying cargo to and from the ISS.
But partnering with the bureaucracy that has spent decades viciously
opposing what it views as threats to its monopoly on manned spaceflight? It’s madness.
A victim of bureaucrats’ selfishness and legislative careerists’
addiction to reelection, NASA is drowning. It doesn’t deserve a lifeline.
D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.
# # # # #