The new budget calls for a course correction—for putting money back into the kind of basic research NASA does best, keeping the space station going through at least 2020, and hiring private contractors for crew and cargo flights. It’s a boon to private space flight companies such as SpaceX but an anathema to politicians who want to keep riding a very lucrative gravy train building paper spaceships. As SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said today during a commercial space telecon organized in response to the budget request, “There are certain members of congress who cannot be swayed by any rational argument. They simply want the answer to be that funding continues in their district independent of any sound basis for it.”
I would argue that the new direction is not just the best option for NASA, but the only one. NASA already has no choice but to rely on the Russians for rides to the International Space Station after the shuttle retires this year. It’s an embarrassment. Obama’s budget will open the door to homegrown solutions for crew and cargo delivery to the space station, while providing much needed research funding for the development of next-gen technologies such as heavy-lift rockets and on-orbit refueling depots.
It’s a step that’s long overdue, though not one without peril. The private sector will have some very big shoes to fill, without the track record to prove that it’s up to the job. And can it succeed without succumbing to the kind of bloat that has eaten our defense budget alive? Working with the government tends to increase the amount of paperwork and oversight, along with the bureaucracy required to handle that extra workload, so it’s a legitimate concern. But, after all, the goal is to reduce the cost of reaching space. It has become clear to the right people, including many engineers and managers at NASA, that the traditional way of doing things hasn’t been working. NASA and the White House have every incentive to keep out of the way of the private contracts as much as possible.
A bigger danger is that NASA could become the only customer for the fledgling spaceflight companies, making them de facto arms of the government, with all the attendant problems, and keeping them at the mercy of changing political winds. That’s one reason Robert Bigelow, CEO of Bigelow Aerospace, which is developing commercial space stations, shuns government financing. “We don’t have NASA currently on our radar screen as a client,” he said during today’s telecon.
That last problem is more likely than I think Belfiore believes; if we’re in for an extended period of statism, then government may well become a “partner” to private space firms. Witness what happened to GM and Chrysler. And even if they take no federal money, the US is still the sovereign over our airspace: they’ll need to placate the government just to get “up there.”
Still, if NASA is being gutted and repurposed to pursue the White Whale of global warming, private enterprise may well offer our best chance to really get back to the future.