Notebook > Technology

New birth

"New birth" Continued...

Issue: "Katrina: Unnatural disaster," Sept. 10, 2005

To make all of this fly, NASA engineers knew they needed to get beyond expendable rockets and tiny capsules. They needed the heavy-lift capability of the Saturn V, but they needed it in a reusable form. And so the space shuttle was born. But not the shuttle we know.

Richard Nixon and congressional Democrats had very different ideas for the future. Quickly shelved were plans to make America's enormous investment in space pay off; in fact, three whole Apollo missions for which the equipment had been built-all that was needed was the fuel-were canceled, their rockets spread around the country as museum pieces. Space went overnight from "the way of the future" to a budgetary "necessary evil." And so it has been ever since.

Before it was a white elephant, the shuttle became a camel-"a horse designed by committee." And as feature after feature got compromised away, it went from truly revolutionary to somewhat adequate to barely competent.

Key among its stated requirements was to launch every two weeks. At closer to once every three months but on no vaguely predictable schedule, the "Space Transportation System" (which didn't even get color computer monitors until two years ago) saw its all-important cost per pound to orbit, well, skyrocket. What remained of America's space dreams crashed like Challenger and Columbia. This is the way of government planning, no different from Soviet steel mills or the equally botched Space Station. But the "space elephant" is finally meeting its gazelle: the free market.

Two weeks ago, Arlington, Va.--based Space Adventures announced it will commence tourist flights to the moon. They won't land, but two passengers-paying $100 million each-and one cosmonaut will soon fly around the moon, the first humans to do so in three decades. To compare, the Apollo program cost $235 billion; and one space shuttle launch-to low Earth orbit-costs around $1 billion and turns no profit at all.

And if that weren't enough, how about going to that Space Hilton? Sir Richard Branson, Paul Allen, and Burt Rutan will get you there, on the new Virgin Atlantic Airlines division, Virgin Galactic. The team has already proved its mettle by winning the Ansari X Prize, $10 million for building and flying a fully private space plane twice in two weeks last year. Mr. Branson's plans are bigger, with regularly scheduled service to space planned for 2007. Despite an initial ticket price of $100,000, all of Virgin's planned flights have already sold out.

So who needs NASA? Certainly government has an essential role in space, from Lewis and Clark--style expeditions to developing vital technologies, like scramjets, with military application. But it's long past time that the routine stuff-the lion's share of NASA's budget-got passed to a deregulated, empowered private sector. As with the Post Office's decision in the 1920s to contract out airmail delivery, such an arrangement will spark an explosion of new technologies, new industries, and in our time, a new frontier. Most of all, it will get government out of the way, in this case of the future. White elephants have no business flying. But mankind does, all the way to the stars.

-Rod D. Martin is founder and chairman of Vanguard PAC

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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