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New U.S. Space Policy Proposals

An Enhanced Prognosis for Space Tourism?

UK 2010-02-10

To many Space enthusiasts across the world, Washington’s recent announcement that President Obama wishes to curtail US endeavours to return to the Moon, Project Constellation, must have been received with dismay.

The new, as yet unadopted, policies are apparently designed to stimulate a significant financial injection into the private commercial sector and thereby encourage additional private investment. Is this the final acceptance that space markets should be within the wider public domain?

No one can deny the immense contribution made by NASA. Not only to science in the broadest of senses but even to a new cosmic ‘Enlightenment’.

True, the recent domestic financial crisis must have played a pivotal part in the decision-making process; bank bail-outs, reduced tax revenues, pressures to stimulate Main Street, (and whichever way one examines it, space exploration is not Main Street!). Maybe space enthusiasts everywhere should blame the bankers of Wall Street, everybody else has.

But post Davos, there seem to be several (not so) new economic dogmas evolving. I do not pretend to be an economist, but to me it is quite incredible to attempt to predict economic absolutes with ever more complex mathematical tools, in theory proving that certain pathways can produce ever more growth whilst simultaneously eliminating risk.

So the markets-know-best approach is in tatters? Or is it just that man’s vain and conceited attempts to manipulate and control the uncontrollable is in tatters?

Risks are inherent in the human condition, both the risks we take and the risks we are exposed to.

By the same token, all-consuming big government simply does not work, especially if based on assumptions of ever growing tax revenues, which in turn are based on the assumptions of severely flawed mathematical models created to, (predict and), produce the initial growth in the first place. This does not just deny Chaos theory; it denies Chaos theory layered upon more Chaos theory.

Despite the wholly understandable post-war beliefs and cold war paranoia of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, it is increasingly inevitable, in the longer term, that space cannot be restricted to the sole provinces of the military and government. Man is just too inquisitive, too entrepreneurial and above all, too uncontrollable and unpredictable.

The history of science is festooned by world changing breakthroughs, theories and discoveries made by private individuals. For the most part these individuals have just been personally and unpredictably driven.

The great chemists, the founders of all modern science, were mainly private individuals. From Brandt boiling urine in his cellar and unwittingly discovering what we now call phosphorus in 1669, followed, soon after, by Robert Boyle, the originator of modern scientific method. Next, in his turn, Henry Cavendish, accredited with the discovery of Hydrogen, whilst well-to-do was a virtual recluse and not even credited with his discovery until after his death.

Joseph Priestly was a man of limited financial means, forced to take a sponsored teaching post to fund his desire to research into gases. He was the first to isolate Oxygen.

His politically powerful rival and competitor Anton Lavoisier, (significantly a French Tax Collector subsequently guillotined for crimes against the new French Republic!), now recognised as having plagiarised and ridden on the back of Priestly’s discovery, nevertheless first postulated the concept of Oxygen being elemental and started the basis of all modern chemical classification.

These leviathans of science, despite making many errors on their journeys of understanding, were neither created out of Government edict nor political necessity, they were simply born to question, to probe and discover; they were not politicians. They were free market intellectual competitors.

So, to the major changes being suggested for US space policy.

Broadly speaking, (and without delving into the personalities and motives involved), the battle lines are drawn between (not surprisingly) the NASA traditionalists, and Buzz Aldrin’s concept of a “Flexible Plus” commercially inspired plan.

The major policy shift is one of direction and goals. Should NASA be “destination driven” which effectively means custom-bespoke research to serve one single purpose, the return to the moon for example; or should NASA have a much broader brief which is “capability driven” and seeks to provide the enabling technologies and innovations that may be used for a much wider number of applications?

These enabling technologies may then be used commercially to achieve a combination of solutions to a combination of objectives. The new budget proposals include $6 billion over five years commencing in 2011 “to spur the development of American commercial human spaceflight vehicles”. This would represent a further, more dramatic paradigm shift in the development of space transportation systems from sole government control.

To a non-political, external observer, these battle lines may be further described as “The old comfortable money-no-object inefficient and bureaucratic, (but centrally controlled) way” against “The new efficient entrepreneurial method”.

If we make three incontrovertible assumptions:
a) That for any commercial human space enterprise; safety has to be the absolute and highest priority and,
b) All accept that a strict regulatory framework must exist, and finally
c) There will not be a wholesale dilution of the intellectual excellence as currently exhibited by the US space industry.

What essentially, therefore, is the fundamental difference between the two opposing approaches? Put simply, the difference lies within the chain of command and control of US space power and, perhaps more critically, US space money. This is pure politics! Nothing whatsoever to do with scientific advancement.

The traditionalists suggest vociferously that safety will be compromised. There is no reason for this whatsoever. If the correct regulatory framework, (for commercial space activity) is in place and NASA’s need for such specialists is financially curtailed: why can’t the same design/safety experts be fruitfully employed within the private sector? Their qualifications do not disappear overnight neither does their expertise, just their potential employer and their working practices and environment.

At Space Miles and we are obviously dedicated to making space travel affordable and accessible to as many people as possible. Any shift of financial influence away from big government space activity to the private sector has to be widely applauded.

The private space companies whilst visionary are starved of cash. Even the smallest of additional sub-contract revenue can make a huge difference to their cash-flow viability and thereby allow several activities in parallel.

Virgin’s approach is correct. An adaptable vehicle, (albeit with limited capabilities thus far) equally and potentially suited to commercial purposes and Space Tourism. These new proposals compliment this business approach significantly.

Space Miles inevitably advocates the principal of creating new technologies using NASA’s superlative skill-sets as the enabler and henceforth allowing private companies to develop a variety of space vehicles, (including orbital Space Taxis), for both commercial and private use.

One has only to consider the changes in the world of science and technology in the brief 350 years or so since the age of Brandt in his basement to conclude:- Of course man will go back to the moon…of course man will go to Mars. Thousands of years of ever accelerating exploration and learning is not about to stop! It is only the timing that will change.

A small price to pay for a renewed and inspired public engagement in all aspects of space science. An engagement which would automatically follow the establishment of a thriving Space Tourism market.

Furthermore, the future space tourist, by his very nature, inherently wishes to see advances in both national and international space endeavour and exploration.

Significantly therefore, an ever growing number of Space Tourists, having experienced a brief taste of space travel, are bound to support the larger more grandiose efforts.

Consider their enhanced and virally infectious passions once they have had a personal insight into space travel. Such huge additional enthusiasm will carry through to their more sceptical peers. This can only be for the good of the space industry as a whole!

So it comes back in principal to the classic Priestly –v- Lavoisier conflict, the struggling original genius against the well connected, plagiarizing, painstaking and self seeking Tax Collecting bureaucrat.

Nothing changes!….But history tells us what happened to Anton Lavoisier!