Saturday, January 3, 2015

Is there still a need for a national space program?

I was at a friend's house the other evening, and the topic of the space program came up. He asked me this: "What do you think of Obama closing down NASA and relying on the private sector to do the job?" I was about to reply, but someone else said something and the conversation moved down a different path...which is a shame, because I most definitely have thoughts on the matter. Since I didn't get the chance to talk about it then, I'll take the opportunity to do so now.

Firstly, I don't think I've heard any credible source indicating that NASA is anywhere near being closed down. In fact, in the recent 'Continuing Resolution/Omnibus Spending Bill' that was passed, NASA received more money than they'd requested, with a significant increase targeted at SLS/Orion. Certainly this should quell any notion about NASA's mission being near an end.

Secondly, the private space industry is nowhere near ready to match the capability of what NASA can provide (both in-house and through contracted services). NASA has invested billions of dollars in facilities, research, infrastructure, manpower, etc., that private industry simply cannot replicate.

Would private industry see a value in New Horizons?
Thirdly, there are a lot of space exploration tasks that are not profit-driven and would likely be considered low-priority by private space interests. While someone like SpaceX might realize a financial reward by investigating lunar/asteroid mining, I'm far less confident they'd see a fiscal benefit in exploring Pluto (New Horizons) or Europa (Europa Clipper). Expanding human knowledge, though unprofitable, is critical to understanding how the universe works.

Lastly, why does having one preclude the usefulness of the other? It doesn't. Private industry, being profit-driven, will look for the cheapest/most efficient way to accomplish a task. There's nothing wrong with that, provided safety and reliability don't suffer. Similarly, I see the need for a national space program that serves the nation's interests - security and exploration - that would make a corporate beancounter whip out their red pen.

One might argue that a national space program is inherently more expensive than a private program, and they have a point. Kind-of. One must remember that many of the private partners make use of the decades of research and experience that NASA offers, as well as the state-of-the-art testing facilities NASA has built over the years. These are costs that the private guys don't have to incur. Moreover, with competition in the private arena heating up, I believe reduced costs are inevitable in a national program, too.

I love seeing the Stars and Stripes on a spaceship.
I'm a fan of the private industry, though I must admit to not always feeling that way. I never thought there was much real push behind them other than to stroke a billionaire's ego. I was wrong, and I don't mind admitting that. I'm genuinely excited about the prospects they bring to the table. I'm also just as excited, if not more-so, about the big programs coming out of NASA.

There are many fanboys out there proudly waving the flag of their chosen "team", and are quick to deride "the other guys". These are wasted energies and detract from the absolute awesomeness that is occurring in the industry. One thing is certain, though: For a space nerd, it's an exciting time to be alive.