Sunday, August 20, 2006

NASA's $500 Million Investment in Space Development

One of my interests in this blog has been the survival of the human race (in whatever form our descendents may take), and the idea that the best thing we can do towards that end is to expand our civilization into space.

Briefly, the main argument starts with the fact that we exist in a universe that is as indifferent to our survival as a species as it is to each of our survival as individuals. We would be foolish to sit around on our hands expecting some divine entity to protect us from the dangers of the universe. Those dangers range from collision with a large object traveling through space, gamma-ray bursts and other interstellar phenomena, disease, climatic disasters (caused either by human activities or events such as a supervolcanic eruption, various forms of planetcide that we may inflict on ourselves.

Whenever I look at a picture of a distant galaxy, I think that it is possible, perhaps even likely, that somewhere in that swirling haze of stars there are the archaeological remnants of a civilization that made it as far as ours did, only to get wiped out because it did not act to ensure its own survival.

Even though the odds of such an event are low (though I sometimes wonder how low they are when we consider the destruction that we may cause to ourselves), risk analysis says to multiply the odds by the value of an event. We are, after all, talking about the destruction of civilization.

The best protection is to spread our race out through the solar system and, later, to solar systems other than this one.

On Friday, NASA announced a milestone in a new project that I think is taking us in the right direction. NASA held a contest to find two new companies that can build rockets for delivering men and supplies to the International Space Station. On Friday, NASA announced the results of the contest. Two companies -- SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler, will be splitting $485 million in development money and the hope of getting contracts to ship supplies to the space station.

What’s new about this?

Since the first days of the space race – with Project Mercury, through Geminii, Apollo, Skylab, the Space Shuttle, and the International Space Station, all of our manned space projects have been designed and run out of NASA. These projects have been expensive and, after 45 years of space development, we have very little to show for it.

On this new model, private companies own and operate the launch systems. NASA will not plan its own missions to deliver people and supplies to the Space Station. It will, instead, announce that it has some supplies to deliver, and one of these private companies will arrange to deliver the supplies for them.

A private company that hires launch services out to NASA will have the freedom to hire its launch services to others as well. This means that anybody who wants to go into space, who will be able to afford a ticket, will be permitted to do so. In order to get a trip into space, you will no longer need to try to get into NASA’s astronaut program. You will simply need to convince one of these private companies to send you up.

By the time these systems are ready to deliver crew to the International Space Station, there may be other destinations as well – such as the private space station that Bigelow Aerospace started testing technology for in July.

Perhaps, in addition to hiring out private launchers, NASA could also start renting space on a private space station – one that has the liberty to have tourists and others as well.

It is almost certain that space development will continue to require some sort of public funding. Yet, space development is more like the national transportation infrastructure, education, military, court and police system, than it is like, say, sports. Space provides an important public good – a good that benefits everybody (or, at least everybody who has desires best fulfilled if the human race survives), yet sports provides no enduring public good other than entertainment. Yet, people in the United States spend $200 billion per year on sports, while NASA's budget is less than $17 billion per year, with much of that having nothing to do with space development.

Nor does this include the other benefits we obtain with that money, such as a GPS system, weather prediction, climate monitoring, land-use satellites, communication, and space weather monitoring.

So, this is a very important “next step” to one of the most important projects that we humans are involved in – protecting our species from extinction. It is an experiment that we really cannot afford to let fail.

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