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Let's Aim for the Moon, or Mars

Privatize space travel, free NASA for research.

July 03, 2002|MARK R. WHITTINGTON | Mark R. Whittington, a space policy analyst, is author of "Children of Apollo" (Xliberis Publishing, 2002).

How did America's human space flight program get stuck going around in circles in low Earth orbit? Thirty years ago, humans stopped going to the moon. Despite a subsequent generation of improvement in technology and experience, there is little serious thought of going back to the moon, not to speak of going to Mars.

The reason for our being in the trap of low Earth orbit stems mostly from the failure of the space shuttle and the space station programs to live up to the promises of their creators.

The space shuttle was supposed to lower the cost of space travel. Instead, because of a limited development budget and government mismanagement, the space shuttle has made space flight more expensive than it was in the 1960s.

The space station was supposed to be a world-class laboratory and orbiting port of call for lunar and interplanetary spacecraft. Instead, 18 years and tens of billions of dollars since it was proposed, the current incarnation of the space station has become a money pit as officials of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration struggle to find a way to make use of it.

With such a record, who can blame people for being skeptical of any idea of lunar bases or expeditions to Mars? NASA would just mess those up too, the reasoning goes. Indeed, the conventional wisdom seems to be that NASA should fix its problems closer to home before it even thinks of going beyond.

Pursuing such a course would be a prescription for stagnation, or even the death of human space flight, because ever more people would lose interest in space adventures.

NASA should hand human space flight operations over to the private sector as quickly as possible. In breaking the Gordian knot, NASA could transform itself from a bureaucratic operations agency to a cutting-edge outfit performing the research, development and exploration it was known for in the past.

NASA should commercialize the space shuttle fleet--lock, stock and astronaut. The government has run a national space line for far too long, bringing along with it government inefficiencies.

Next, NASA should throw open all regular launch services, including the resupply and crew rotation of the International Space Station, to private bid.

Then NASA should redirect its space launch initiative away from building a replacement for the shuttle and toward technology development that will help create a private launch industry.

Finally, NASA and the partners in the International Space Station should privatize the orbiting facility. A private operator would be empowered to enter into commercial agreements to maintain and enhance the space station's capabilities.

Whereas mismanagement by NASA has threatened to freeze the space station at a crew of three, a private firm might be able to find creative ways to expand that number back to seven. NASA and its station partners could become customers rather than operators.

A privately run low-Earth-orbit infrastructure would go further toward proving the usefulness of humans in space than would staying the course, hoping something will change by itself.

A return-to-the-moon effort would not necessarily be an Apollo-sized operation. Studies conducted at the Johnson Space Center and at the Lunar and Planetary Institute suggest that a five-year, $2.5-billion effort using off-the-shelf or soon-to-be-developed technology could be mounted. Even at double the estimated cost, the price of a return to the moon would be only a billion dollars a year--half of what it takes to maintain the space station.

It's time to begin the American odyssey on the stone deserts of the moon and the rusty plains and valleys of Mars. The future requires that we dare no less.

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