Thinking Tech

Steele yourself or no Moon and no Mars

Steele yourself or no Moon and no Mars

Posting in Government

Space, as an American government enterprise, is not working. Time to try something new.

Space is expensive, and America won't reach its goals under its present budget plans for NASA.

That's the bottom line in an executive summary from the Presidential commission headed by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine.

President Obama asked the group in January to evaluate whether the Bush Administration's big plans for space were achievable. The answer is no. (Think he might do the same with Afghanistan?)

How short of money are we? Billions of dollars. But only three billions per year, according to the report.

Where might the extra money come from? The report offers some answers -- other countries and private firms.

Some NASA bureaucrats say the President faces a hard choice between abandoning manned spaceflight or pulling the money out of taxpayers.

There is another way.

Abandon NASA. That is, abandon NASA as an all-American, government-funded, adjunct of the military that plants flags on distant planets and test-fires nuclear missiles to get folks into orbit.

Create a new mechanism.  Here is what Allen Steele (picture from his biography page), who writes the best hard sci-fi (that is, based on science) about space now living, had to say back in 2001:

The time has come for the creation a new federal space agency devoted entirely to private space development.

The Commercial Space Administration (CSA), would be much like the present Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Its primary purpose would be to foster private space enterprise.

The CSA would have two major functions. First, it would serve as the primary regulatory agency for commercial space exploration, making it easier for a company to put a project on the fast track to full operation....

Second, the CSA would award federal grants to private companies that wish to develop new spacecraft for commercial use, with an emphasis on second-generation passenger-rated craft....

By offering "seed money" to such fledgling companies, the CSA would assist private industry in developing advanced launch systems.

In other words, use government money to make space pay. Go from a single-payer space system to a venture capital model.

I would go further than Steele. Make the CSA's commercial arm an international fund, with an international staff and board of directors. Solicit investment from Russia, from China, from Europe, and from individuals.

An international fund would also grease the wheels to make CSA's regulatory functions cover the world. A single set of rules is a necessity for commercial space exploration.

There are lots of entrepreneurs, like Richard Branson, who are very interested in space. But patient capital is needed before anything from space will pay. Such capital would control patents gained in developing solutions. There have to be multiple revenue streams.

I think readers who call me names by assuming I always support government-led solutions to problems may be surprised by this. But I have never been an ideologue on any subject. I'm for what works.

Space, as an American government enterprise, is not working. Time to try something new.

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure