Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Wish Week Day 5: Restructure NASA

Wish Week Day 5: Restructure NASA

We are on Day 5 of “Wish Week” – a week of ideas that I would wish for if I had the power to make wishes (or the money to make such a wish come true).

So far, I have discussed:

Day 1: Logic Circles

Day 2: Truer Legislative Representation

Day 3: The University of Earth

Day 4: Fresh Start Campus

Today’s wish almost coincidentally comes on the cusp of a news headline. Today, Bigelow Aerospace launched a private, inflatable space station module into space.

Robert Bigelow is the owner of the Budget Suites of America Hotel Chain who has devoted $500 million of his own money to develop the technology for constructing a hotel in space. The start of his plan involved purchasing technology that NASA had started to develop and cancelled for sending inflatable habitats into space. The benefit of an inflatable habitat is that they are far less expensive to launch (because they are smaller), but give people in space far more room to move around.

Ultimately, Bigelow is reported to be trying to build his own private space station by 2015.

This brings me to my wish for Day 5.

I wish that NASA would end its practice of building and operating its own space missions and, instead, offer its money as “prizes” to private companies who are trying to accomplish the things that NASA would otherwise try to accomplish.

This is somewhat unique in my list of dreams so far. The last two years have seen significant movement in this direction, and I am very pleased with the results.

Centennial Challenges

NASA’s Centennial Challenges is a program that allows NASA to offer small (in space development standards) prizes to individuals who can come up with solutions for a number of space problems.

This branch of NASA is already running a number of competitions including a $250,000 prize to develop a better form of glove, a $250,000 competition to come up with a way of separating oxygen from the lunar soil (so astronauts will not need to take their own oxygen), and a $2.5 million prize to the winner of a competition to create a lunar module that can take off, move, and land using rocket power.

In 2005, the NASA budget for the Centennial Prizes program was increased to $20 million. It is a start.

NASA’s Space Cargo Contract

NASA has another contest that it is now running. This one is worth $500 million, which could be split between multiple winners. With the Space Shuttle on its way out, NASA needs a new way to send people and supplies to the International Space Station. The winner of this contest will get money from NASA to develop rockets that will meet these needs.

This will be the first time that the ability to send people into space will be in the hands of one or more private companies. A company that can send people to the International Space Station as a part of a NASA contract can send people into space for other reasons, including visits to Bigelow’s space station.

The Wish

My wish, then, would be to see NASA expand these programs significantly to the point that the bulk of our space program are private, commercial launches rather than government launches.

Twenty years ago, the Regan Administration announced a plan to spend $8 billion to build a space station in Earth orbit. They were scheduled to be done by the early 1990s. NASA has now spent 20 years and over $100 billion on that project, and it is still not done. By the time it is done, Bigelow may well be putting a larger space station into orbit for approximately $1 billion.

I often imagine what would have happened if, 20 years ago, the Reagan Administration had said, “We are willing to purchase $8 billion worth of time on private, American- owned space stations.” I do not think that it is beyond the realm of possibility to have expected that, today, we would have 2 or 3 space stations in orbit, at significantly less cost to the taxpayer, who were also making additional money through space tourism from people who were visiting the station for far less than the $20 million it now costs.

Currently, the Bush Administration is working on a $104 billion project to build a research station on the moon by the year 2020.

If we extrapolate from previous NASA programs, I do not expect that this will actually happen. If it does, it will cost closer to $300 billion and will not be completed until sometime between 2030 and 2040.

I wish that the Bush Administration would simply say, “We are willing to spend $100 billion for research time on a lunar research station,” and then let private enterprise go through the pains of building a lunar base that could supply NASA’s needs.

One of the best parts about this type of program – it is guaranteed not to run into government overruns. The government offers to purchase $100 billion in research time, and that is exactly what it spends. If private enterprise wants more money, then private enterprise can try to find other ways to raise money. Maybe they can find ways to ship tourists to the moon for $1 billion each. Perhaps they could make a few dollars mining oxygen from the lunar surface and to ship it into earth orbit to be used by the space stations – both as air to breath and as oxygen for rocket fuel. If there is water on the moon – this would be worth a few dollars as well.

I am not talking about making this a lump-sum contribution to the winning organization. Rather, the money could be spent the same way that NASA would spend the money if it was going to the moon itself. It can offer a few billion for the development and testing of certain technologies in space. It could offer a few billion to companies that build heavy-lift vehicles by paying to put simple compounds in earth orbit. We can open up a lot of possibilities in near earth space simply by getting some basic resources up there, such as hydrogen (which can be mixed with lunar oxygen to produce water), carbon, and nitrogen. So, a few billion for the simple accomplishment of putting large block of ammonia and carbohydrates in space would be useful.

Ultimately, we need a space development industry more than we need a lunar research base. This program will develop and promote private companies that can accomplish certain tasks and, from there, they can find other ways to make money. I wonder what the effects of these programs would be on Bigelow’s space stations.


In Wish #3: The University of Earth, I provided my two main reasons for this program. There are two “public goods” associated with space development where it is particularly difficult to set up a system where the free market can work to its full potential.

One “public good” is environmental. Along with these prizes, I wish the government would recognize that there are certain social benefits to harvesting needed resources from the dead of space compared to ripping them out of the living earth. To recognize this, I wish that the government would either provide tax incentives for those who harvest resources from the dead of space, or impose certain financial burdens on those who rip their resources from the living earth to recognize the social costs of these activities.

The other “public good” is the survival of the human species. As long as humans are confined to one place there is a greater risk of total destruction. Financial planners tell their customers that they can reduce risk by diversifying their investments. The human race can reduce its risks if we diversity into space.

Another argument that people give for going into space is to acquire scientific knowledge. I happen to be a significant fan of scientific knowledge. However, I have trouble defending the thesis that this particular good can justify billions of dollars worth of space development. We can buy a great deal of scientific knowledge in other areas of science with that money. There is no particularly compelling reason to hold that, of all of the “pure science” we can gather, space science is so much more valuable than other types that we are justified in spending so much more money.

This, then, is my wish for Day 5.

No comments: