For decades, NASA kept a tight fist around the construction and operation of the spacecraft that ferried its astronauts and hardware into orbit. Sure, an army of private contractors actually built the vehicles, but NASA oversaw the designs—and always kept the pink slips. Now, however, the agency seems to be shifting course, as NASA officials insist that the budding commercial spacecraft fleet represents the only way the United States can realize its dreams of solar-system conquest on schedule and at an affordable cost.
Because of a new focus for NASA’s strategic investments—not to mention incentives like the Ansari X Prize, which spurred the space-tourism business, and the Google Lunar X Prize, which could do the same for payloads—private-sector spaceships could be ready for government service soon, says Sam Scimemi, who heads NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program. “The industry has grown up,” he tells PM. “It used to be that only NASA or the Air Force could do such things…..”
…..”I’d like for us to get to the point where we have the kind of private/public synergy in space flight that we have had for a hundred years in aviation,” Griffin said. The spirit of private enterprise is crucial to the future of space exploration, he acknowledged. “I see a day in the not-very-distant future where instead of NASA buying a vehicle, we buy a ticket for our astronauts to ride to low Earth orbit, or a bill of lading for a cargo delivery to space station by a private operator. I want us to get to that point.”
Hauling cargo represents the grunt work of space exploration and, dominated by the space shuttle, it has long gobbled millions of dollars of NASA’s budget. The agency’s new vision hands that duty off to private companies that, freed from government paperwork, can do it more economically. This would free up more of the NASA budget for space exploration missions, Scimemi says.
And this is exactly what NASA should have been doing for years. The NASA monopoly on government-backed space missions has always seemed silly particularly, as the story notes, since all of the components and crafts were being built by private contractors.
As we have seen time and time again, privatization of certain government functions gives the taxpayer more flexibility, more options, and a better product with less overhead, less bureaucracy, and lower costs. Let’s just hope that NASA’s newfound vision of the space program not only spreads to other agencies at the federal and (hopefully) state level, but also survives the next Presidential administration. I have a fear that such innovations will suffer under a Democratic administration….