Our Future in Space


Last month President Bush announced a bold new initiative to create a permanent manned station on the moon, and to send human beings to Mars. Unfortunately, Mr. Bush chose NASA as the vehicle to accomplish this goal—which otherwise had the power to become a defining event in human history.

A truly bold vision of the future of space exploration for America would place private space entrepreneurs at the forefront. Like other industries (e.g. semiconductors, biotech, and the internet), the federal government played a significant early role in demonstrating key technologies. But these industries flourished when entrepreneurs stepped in and took the reins. We are now at that point with the exploration of space.

This may not be obvious to those who remember NASA’s Gemini and Apollo programs. NASA did a remarkable job in the 1960’s, and the world stood in awe as we put a man on the moon.

But the seeds of bureaucracy had already taken root; NASA burned $122 billion for the Apollo program by 1969 (in current dollars). And, having achieved perhaps the most amazing accomplishment in the history of our species, NASA lost its way. Since the mid-1970’s NASA has tried in vain to create a series of goals and missions that would rekindle the spirit of the early days. Each attempt has failed.

Consider the international space station (ISS): it was budgeted to take 8 years and less than $20 billion, but ended up requiring 20 years and over $100 billion—and has not accomplished any of its goals. ISS was slated to house 7 people: 3 crew and 4 researchers. Instead it houses 3 crew only—with occasional research performed when crew members can find the time. It is a testament to how far NASA has fallen that this blatant failure is cited as one of their greatest recent achievements.

Meanwhile, a number of young, private companies seek to pick up where NASA left off—companies like XCOR Aerospace, Scaled Composites, and SpaceX. Their people are among the most innovative and exciting minds of our times. Had they lived 40 years ago, they might have been astronauts and program managers at NASA, responsible for key missions. (In fact, a few of them were!) They are driven by the same dreams as the men and women of NASA, 40 years ago: to see mankind reach the stars.

If you are not familiar with these companies, you should be. They are our future.

Each of these companies expects to launch vehicles into space within 2 years. These are not your typical NASA contractors—private in name only. Many have already demonstrated engineering breakthroughs that have eluded NASA for decades—and on shoestring budgets.

XCOR kicked things off by adding rocket propulsion to a small single-person aircraft. Last month, on the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ Kitty Hawk flight, Scaled Composites became the first private company to break the sound barrier. And SpaceX, created by a co-founder of eBay’s PayPal unit, is also in process to get a commercial launch license from the FAA. These companies expect to dramatically reduce the cost of launching people and equipment into space—from NASA’s $500+ million per shuttle flight, to as little as $500,000 per flight.

Many are motivated by the privately funded “X Prize,” which was inspired by the $25,000 prize Charles Lindbergh won for crossing the Atlantic. X Prize will award $10 million to the first company to make it to space without using government funds. A paltry sum by NASA standards, the X Prize has attracted over two dozen competitors, and is supported by John Glenn, Buzz Aldrin, Tom Hanks, Tom Clancy, Dick Gephardt, and Dan Goldin, among others.

Here are three things President Bush can do that will help the space industry flourish.

First, he could have a profound effect on the investment climate by clarifying at every opportunity that it is the policy of the U.S. government to encourage private space activities. The biggest impediment to entrepreneurs in any industry is a lack of capital, and space activities are capital intensive. The single greatest concern of investors contemplating an investment in a space-related company is that the U.S. government will attempt to put private companies out of business.

Second, he can ensure we end the regulatory barriers by the FAA and other agencies that inhibit private space entrepreneurship. As with other technologies, building and testing new space technologies should not be handicapped by pointless and costly regulation.

Third, he could encourage private investment in space-related activities through investment tax credits, and other tax incentives.

Note that taxpayers need not spend a dime on this new endeavor. Indeed, federal space spending could be radically cut, our great capitalist system is already picking up the tab.

Sadly, President Bush appears to have missed this fundamental shift in the last 20 years: away from an American space program, and toward an American space industry. Because he really does have an opportunity to create one of the most significant and lasting accomplishments our species will ever see—and at a bargain price.

President Bush has allocated more time for us to return to the moon than it took for us to get there the first time. Ironically, even with the extra time, NASA is simply not up to the task.

But America is.