Thinking Tech

In space, profit like rocket fuel is a means, not an end

In space, profit like rocket fuel is a means, not an end

Posting in Government

The headline "The most important space product is profit" is where I disagree with Dana. It sounds like it came from someone shouting at a healthcare reform town meeting. We can hand off low-earth orbit exploration to private concerns, but need NASA for probing deep space. by John Dodge

Good friend and fellow blogger Dana Blankenhorn thinks I am against making a profit in space.

Not at all. Private concerns are already an essential element of America's space program and will play a pivotal role in low-earth orbit space travel.

Private concern SpaceX has been hired to use its Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon crew and cargo capsule to re-supply the International Space Station (ISS) once the Space Shuttle is retired in 2010 or 2011. Indeed, a Falcon 9 already sits on Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral poised for its maiden flight this year. In 2011 should all go according to plan, it will start resupplying the ISS in the first of 12 such missions.

Falcon 9 launch vehicle at Cape Canaveral

What's more, Congress has authorized $50 million in stimulus funds for the Commercial Crew Development program to "foster" space exploration by the private sector. And an energized  Commercial Spaceflight Federation backed by a increasingly sympathetic Obama administration and made up of 20 U.S. companies (where are you, IBM?) is rushing to make sure that U.S. astronauts don't have to rely on foreign rockets once the Space Shuttle is retired. At the same time, we have to forge relationships with foreign partners. We can't do it all anymore like we could in the Sixties.

So the pieces are falling into place to more precisely define NASA's mission and align it with available resources as recommended in the Augustine Commission report that came out this week. And the burgeoning U.S. commercial space effort is clearly integral to that mission. Now is an incredibly opportune time for space exploration and travel. Let's not waste the inspiration drawn from the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11.

The headline is where I disagree with Dana whose posts show him to a compelling and forceful advocate.  "The most important space product is profit" sounds like it came from someone shouting at a healthcare reform town meeting. I've read enough of Dana's posts to know if he were a senator, he'd sit, sensibly enough, on the left side of aisle with me.

Animation of Spacex's crew and cargo capsule

I have a hard time looking at those indescribably beautiful Hubble photos (thank you, NASA!) and thinking about profit. Space exploration's most important product is providing all of us with answers to what's out there and how it can benefit humankind. Profit is important, but should be thought of as rocket fuel. Without either, we wouldn't get off the launchpad.

In the macro sense and like the Augustine Commission recommends, we should leave deep space exploration to NASA and get private enterprises to eventually take over as big a chunk of the low-earth orbit piece as it can safely handle.

It's a fair question to ask if the CEOs of companies like SpaceX are doing this for profit or love of space. It's assuredly a mix of both and I grant you the SpaceX CEO Elon Musk claims he can rocket in and out space  much more cheaply than NASA. More power to him. He probably can and will.

While NASA and its $19 billion budget request deserve close scrutiny and realignment, throwing the storied agency out as Dana suggests would be tossing the baby out with the bath water. And I don't think there's a snowball's chance  that will happen.

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John Dodge

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Dodge has written for the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, PC Week (now eWeek), EDN, Design News, Electronic Business, Bio-IT World, Health-IT World, Lowell Sun, Haverhill Gazette and Newburyport Daily News. He is based in Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure