nasa vs. private space, the fictional dilemma
Journalists have two tricks to add conflict to an otherwise boring story, two tricks that drive skeptics up a wall without fail. One is to add false balance to stories, like quips from people who may not be completely sane or educated on the issue. One example is quoting conspiracy theorists and quacks in health or political articles for the sake of having two sides to a story that only has one. The other is to create some sort of a big struggle between two parties included in the report despite the fact that the two groups might actually be the very best and most cooperative of friends, and are actually working together to tackle a common problem. And it’s this latter route that Jeffrey Kluger chose for his article on new aerospace startups for Time.com. Painting a big competition between the private market and NASA’s stogy bureaucracy, he presents companies like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences as replacements for the space agency, trying to keep the government in space as the shuttle finally fades into the twilight of retirement. However, in reality, nothing could be further from the truth.
Rather than being forced by presidential edict to let private space companies build new spacecraft, set out in the space exploration agenda laid out by the Obama administration, NASA has been actively helping them and watching the development at SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, and even Virgin Galactic. Because the goal is to build cheaper vehicles that will significantly lower the cost and streamline the logistics of getting to space, it’s in the agency’s direct benefit to contract with private companies as much as possible. Less cost means more missions and more science being done, as well as the potential to lay the groundwork for making money in space with orbital hotels and giving scientists easier access to the final frontier. As for the space companies themselves, they don’t see NASA as an obstacle or a competitor either since the agency runs competitions to find the best and most promising ideas among them, showing every sign of becoming a customer should a new rocket design prove itself flight-worthy, or a new piece of equipment show itself superior and cheaper to the existing hardware used on the shuttle or the ISS. Why would they possibly want to start conflicts with their future number one customer? And why would they see themselves as pushing aside old bureaucrats when they and they agency share the same goal: to get machines and humans to space safely and cheaply?
Yet that said, there is political opposition to NASA’s transition from a government body to an umbrella agency for a swarm of aerospace contractors competing for the best design, and that opposition comes from those who you’d least expect to object to such privatization; the GOP. Because they rely on NASA’s largesse for a steady number of jobs in their states, plenty of Republican senators and congressmen are not happy, going into the realm of ridiculous hyperbole to make sure that those jobs stay put. Funny how the very same people who preach to their party core that the government is at the root of every problem, that we need as little of it as possible, and that it has never created a single job, oppose an effort to reduce the government’s reach in their districts. Now, all of a sudden, the very private enterprises that are supposed to be at the heart of the country’s innovation engine and the economy, become woefully unqualified and inexperienced when it comes to space travel and exploration, even though virtually every vehicle ever flown by NASA was built by defense contractors like Lockheed Martin or Boeing. And if we listen to politicians only interested in the cash flow to their districts, we’re going to end up with a space program that falls behind the times and have to rely solely on the military for steady access to space, a military that’s going to take its time letting the latest and greatest technology get converted for civilian uses to maintain its strategic advantage in orbit.
Repeat after me. There’s no big shift at NASA in which the old guard must warm up to the idea of companies building new rockets and crew vehicles. Its just business as usual with more and smaller companies being allowed to experiment and submit their ideas for testing and consideration. And because there are more and more companies interested in getting to space, our space program will only benefit from their efforts. Why do you think NASA helped launch Bigelow Airspace’s prototypes of inflatable space stations if it’s so loath to let high minded startups experiment with new vehicles they’ll want to lease or sell to the agency? But oh well, we can’t let things like facts or real conflicts get in the way of telling the story we want to tell, right Mr. Kluger?