Today is a historic day in space flight. Approximately two hours ago, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) successfully launched its Falcon 1 into Earth orbit. It was the fourth attempt for the Falcon 1, the three previous attempts ending in failure.
This is tremendous news.
NASA has been the leader in space flight for more than fifty years. Originally created fifty years ago, its purpose was to guide America into space. And while we’re going there, we might as well go fast — our mortal enemies, the Soviet Union, surprised the heck out of us by putting Sputnik 1, the first man-made satellite, into Earth orbit before we even had a clue what was going on.
Much of the early work in space flight was done for the purpose of national hubris. There was no real need to go into space, other than for national defense. Weapons in space hadn’t been outlawed (until 1967), and leaders of both nations recognized that it was real easy to attack the other from directly overhead. This fear propelled both nations to work incredibly hard at their space programs.
President Kennedy famously promised in 1961 that America would put men on the moon by the end of the decade. This mandate provided a meaningful goal (on a very tight time schedule).
As you already know, we did it. Six times, in fact. The Soviets never managed to pull it off. That was about it for the space race — the Americans were superior.
The Space Shuttle program was begun in the mid-1970s to produce a reusable vehicle that could be used to reach orbit. The Space Shuttle has been a great success. While there have been two notable accidents, there have also been about a hundred successful flights. Some Shuttles are nearing 30 years old and are in need of retirement.
NASA’s done a great job in getting us into space, but it’s not without its problems. The Challenger disaster in 1986 has been blamed primarily on political pressure to get the Shuttle off the ground at all costs. Engineers who felt the boosters’ shrunken O-rings should have been inspected were silenced. Columbia’s 2002 breakup on re-entry was also due to management — a few engineers had debated the problem, but were eventually convinced by superiors that the problem of foam breaking free of the external tank was not a serious problem.
NASA has suffered the same plight of any other governmental organization — politics. Politicians have tried to use NASA to further their political causes; either to its ultimate benefit (Pres. Kennedy and Nixon, most notably) or to its detriment (our current President). Currently rumors abound that NASA is being censored by the Bush administration because some the key tenets that scientists know are true are at direct odds with fundamentalist Christian beliefs that the Earth is only 6,000 years old.
NASA is expensive. All those checks and balances needed to be completely and absolutely sure that NASA isn’t wasting taxpayer money? Yeah, they cost taxpayer money.
NASA can’t be risky. A government project can’t afford failure. Bush mentioned a few years back that it should be NASA’s goal to put men on Mars by 2020. But why is this necessary? Manned missions are dangerous and exceptionally costly. When lives are at stake, no one can afford failure. Bush’s insistence of sending men to Mars is reckless, and severely disturbs NASA’s priorities. We’ve had rovers basically doing the work of men on Mars since Sojourner in 1997. Rovers are effective because the missions were (relatively) simple — get off the ground, land on Mars (admittedly the hard part), deploy the rover, beam data back to Earth, go out for celebratory drinks. Rovers don’t require life support or a vehicle to return home, so the missions are inherently much less complex. Requiring that men travel to Mars is unnecessarily dangerous and detours NASA from more attainable goals that will benefit more people.
Besides, what’s wrong with failure? So long as lives are not on the line, failure is an acceptable (and necessary) part of any large-scale project. Organizations learn a lot from failure. Any entrepreneur will tell you that she has failed multiple times on the road to success. Business can allow this failure; government programs cannot. Government progress must therefore be slower and much more expensive than business’ so as not to allow failure in any way.
NASA has had its day, but there’s got to be a better way to do all this. Why does each shuttle flight cost a billion dollars? Can’t we do it more safely for less money? Of course — privatization. Have companies compete and see who can do the best job for less.
Privatization of space travel is important. Companies can take risks that lead to cheaper rockets and more daring design decisions. Corporations can bargain for deals on parts in the way that the federal government can’t. Companies don’t have to impress politicians, administrators, and citizens — only their owners. Finally, companies can afford to hire top talent without being restricted to a government salary scale. The laws of supply-and-demand are in full effect.
Congratulations to owner Elon Musk and SpaceX for their accomplishment. Today’s first step is a huge one in making privatized space flight a reality. The world and I wait anxiously as the next era of space flight begins.