I have long seen space as a significant source of materials for solving many of the problems on earth - not the least of these being the problem of preventing our extinction of a species. It's huge quanities of material and energy - the ability to "create" the equivalent of 30,000 Earths in surface area to live on from the material in the asteroid belt alone, and all of the energy from the sun, suggests great potential.
So, I have followed the space program looking for it to release that great promise.
President Obama's space budget showed that potential. It was marketed poorly - as a "cut" in NASA and an abolution of its moon program. Yet, what was "cut" were huge money sinks just like those in the past that have taken huge amounts of money and accomplished little. Obama's budget would take that money and spend it on projects that promised to deliver substantially more.
Well, the Senate and the House have substantially rejected Obama's budget in exchange for continuing more of the same that has given us so little in the past 40 years.
And some people are working to change that.
(See: Space.com, Commercial Spaceflight Supporters Rally to Stall Vote on NASA Bill)
The main difference between the two options is: Will NASA pay private companies to deliver its cargo and crews into space, or will it do this work itself?
The main difference between the two options:
If NASA is buying these services from commercial space companies, those same companies have the option of selling similar services to other customers. These options include space tourism, science flights for commercial laboratories, people interested in space-based solar power, and other interests.
What we get from this is a program that takes the $6 billion from NASA and adds it to whatever these entrepreneurs can get out of other customers to create a $6 billion plus $N space program.
Furthermore, these companies have an incentive to find more efficient ways to get material into space (or to reduce costs by using material already in space) - at least for the sake of their private customers, if not for the sake of servicing a government contract.
What we get from the old tried and true "big NASA project" system (a.k.a. the Constellation Program) is what we saw with the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station is a project that funnels money to a small number of big companies where delays and cost-overruns means that a $10 billion project ends up costing $100 billion and accomplishing half as much as originally promised.
As somebody who has already waited too long to see some of the promises of space development, I prefer the first option over the second.
Unfortunately, the companies that benefit from the second option appear to have done enough lobbying to Congress to get them to vote for that option instead. And the new, young, commercial space companies who have been engineering rockets rather than engineering elections are being outmaneuvered on the political front.
Given history, I am quite certain that if we continue the Constellation Program as the House version of the NASA Budget suggests, we will see delays and cost overruns that will have NASA spending tens of billions of dollars accomplishing almost nothing in the way of manned space development.
For a while - from the time Obama announced his space budget in February until just a few days ago - I was thinking that I might actually get to see the type of space developments that I have wanted to see for a long time. Now, I fear that I will instead see headlines about NASA contractors wanting billions of more dollars which the government will provide, along with plans to significantly reduce or delay the goals for those projects. It's going to be another disappointing 10 years in the area of human space flight.
Follow-Up: August 1, 2010
It appears that the policial entities favoring the commercial space option have won a delay in the vote, giving them an opportunity to lobby the legislators for a better space bill.
It's to be expected that the companies that have, over the years, made billions of dollars each year on space projects are not going to be happy with a bill that gives the money to small commercial companies instead. They have reason to spend a huge amount of money on lobbyists and other political influences to say, "Don't take this 6 billion away and give it to them. Keep giving it to us instead?"
But what they will give us - what they have given us in the past - is cost overruns and delays. Whatever the announced objective of the BIG NASA PROJECT are at the start, we can expect it to cost 4 times that much in order to spend four times as long to accomplish half as much.
It is time to explore another option.