Sunday, January 15, 2012

Maybe It Shouldn't Be Saved

In his January 1 column, Florida Today space columnist John Kelly posed the question, how to save the space program.

He invited his readers to submit their own ideas:

I’m sure you have ideas about those, and others. I want to hear your ideas, too. I aim to utilize the column to shine the light on wasteful spending, off-mission projects, opportunities for collaboration and anything else you think is important to saving the space program.

I took him up on that offer, and my response is in today's issue.

Click here to read the article.

The article is essentially what I've written here for the last two years.

John didn't really define what he meant by "the space program." I assumed he meant the government's space program, and that's defined by the The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958. The Act has been amended several times since then.

Nothing in the Act requires NASA to fly people into space, to explore other worlds or even to own its rockets. NASA was intended to be a civilian aerospace research and development agency. It was separated from the Defense Department so the Soviet Union wouldn't have a justification for militarizing space. (Not that the USSR would care ...)

In 1961, President Kennedy proposed that the government space program place a man on the Moon by the end of that decade. It was inspirational, but it also morphed NASA into something it wasn't meant to be — a bloated government agency controlled by elected politicians on the Congressional space subcommittees who use NASA to direct pork to their districts and to campaign donors.

In the article, I suggest that NASA needs to return to its original purpose, while routine space access is handled by the private sector. That's what we do with commercial airlines. Let's not forget that NASA is also an aeronautics research agency. It absorbed the old National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).

Nobody expected NACA to be a government monopoly running the only airline that allowed people to fly in the air. NASA wasn't meant to run the only vehicle that allows people to fly in space. But it does.

So I posited that if by "space program" is meant a government monopoly, then perhaps it shouldn't be saved.

I'm all for space exploration, but as we've seen in the last few decades NASA can't build and operate a human spaceflight program without long delays and huge cost overruns. Part of the blame lies with an increasingly risk-averse culture. Part of it is Congressional apathy. Part of the blame belongs with us, because other than applauding at launches most Americans couldn't care less about space so long as it doesn't cost them any money.

It's time to allow NASA to return to its roots, and let American enterprise do what it does best.

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