Less than a month after the ceremonial retirement of the Space Shuttle prototype Enterprise, the Space X team successfully launched an unmanned Dragon 9 capsule into orbit –thereby marking another milestone in the privatization of space exploration. The solar-powered Dragon 9 vehicle is scheduled to rendezvous with the International Space Station on May 25.
“Today marks the beginning of a new era in exploration; a private company has launched a spacecraft to the International Space Station that will attempt to dock there for the first time,” declared NASA administrator Charles Bolden, who – being a member of the tax-consuming class – couldn’t resist poaching credit on behalf of the government. Extolling what he called “President Obama’s leadership” – thereby making the required ritual invocation to the Dear Leader – Bolden claimed that the government is “handing off to the private sector our transportation to the International Space Station so that NASA can focus on what we do best — exploring even deeper into our solar system, with missions to an asteroid and Mars on the horizon.”
What NASA actually does best, of course, is to deliver antiquated technology at unprecedented prices, while siphoning away resources from the productive sector that could have been used to expand both the commercial use and scientific exploration of space. During the past decade, while NASA has suffered a series of embarrassing high-profile failures, the Space X consortium has made dramatic advances in space technology – in efforts that were funded entirely by private investors.
The “new era” of private spaceflight actually began eight years ago.
On August 22, 2004, pilot Brian Binnie piloted SpaceShipOne, a privately constructed reusable spacecraft, to an altitude of 71 miles. Thiswas SpaceShipOne’s second voyage within a week, thereby earning the $10 million “X Prize” for the spacecraft’s development team, headed by aviation pioneer Burt Rutan.
“Today we have made history,” exulted X Prize Foundation co-founder Peter Diamandis as he awarded the prize to Rutan’s team. “Today we go to the stars. You have raised a tide that will bring billions of dollars into the industry…. We will begin a new era of spaceflight.”
Hoisted aloft over California’s Mojave Desert by a turbojet mothership called the White Knight, SpaceShipOne made a total of three sub-orbital jaunts: one in June 2004, two more the following August. The light but sophisticated one-man craft was propelled by a mixture of nitrous oxide and rubber, a combination yielding thousands of pounds of thrust. The first flight on June 21 pierced the 62-mile limit that is internationally recognized as the threshold of Outer Space. The craft improved its performances in each of its subsequent flights, the third of which easily surpassed the previous altitude record of 67 miles set by the military’s X-15 spacecraft in 1963.
During the first two flights, pilot Mike Melvill – who earned immortality by becoming the world’s first commercial astronaut — experienced, and dealt with, various in-flight emergencies, including wind shear, a jammed tail control, and unexpected rolls. Rutan’s team was able to analyze and correct those problems quickly and effectively.
SpaceShipOne’s success offered a striking contrast to the disasters and delays that plagued NASA. In 2003, the Columbia space shuttle, a 21-year-old relic that was essentially obsolete during its first mission in 1981, disintegrated during re-entry, killing its five-man, two-woman crew. The Shuttle, which was as of 1981 became NASA’s last man-rated launch system, was taken out of service for the following two years. This forced inaction was damaging because the Shuttle was expected to play a critical role in construction of the International Space Station (ISS)–which itself has been mired in cost overruns, production delays, and design troubles.
In 2003, while the private SpaceShipOne was soaring triumphantly into space, NASA’s much-hyped Genesis probe crashed ingloriously to Earth in southern Utah. The probe, which cost taxpayers $260 million, had been sent to collect samples of the “solar wind” — highly charged particles emitted by the sun that, according to mission specialists, would help scientists decipher clues to our solar system’s origins.
NASA planned to retrieve the probe by sending helicopters to snag its parachute line as the capsule gently plummeted toward the earth. But this elegant plan was rendered moot because four “gravity switches,” delicate instruments intended to trigger the craft’s parachute, had been installed backward. This was not an error on the part of an inattentive technician; as Scientific American pointed out, the alignment of the faulty gravity switches was “a simple design error that went undetected despite many layers of review.”
“One of the questions we have to answer,” commented Michael Ryschkewitsch, head of NASA’s Genesis Mishap Investigation Board, is “how did we not catch this?” Cynics might observe that NASA’s Mishap Investigation Board has had plenty of experience tardily catching critical details after hundreds of millions have been spent–on the myopically mis-designed Hubble Space Telescope, the ill-fated Mars Polar Lander, and the orbital money pit called the International Space Station.
Originally proposed by President Ronald Reagan 20 years ago as “Space Station Freedom,” the ISS was conceived as a grand orbital city of the sort depicted in the science fiction visions of Arthur C. Clarke. It was initially conceived as a permanent outpost devoted to research and commercial production (such as the manufacture of perfect ball bearings and the development of pharmaceuticals). It would also serve as a launch platform for spacecraft headed to the moon, Mars, and beyond.
Nearly 20 years ago, Congress appropriated $13 billion for the ISS, which was scaled down and repackaged as a glorious joint venture between the U.S. and Russia. In the intervening years, “costs … soared while ambitions faded,” noted William Tucker of The American Enterprise. “When completed, the ISS will hold six astronauts. The two in residence now spend 85 percent of their time on construction and maintenance. In essence, the U.S. is spending billions so that two astronauts can build a space shed.”
When federal agencies have “unlimited resources” to work with, failure generally doesn’t mean an end to funding, as it would for private research and exploration ventures. This may be why mishap management, not exploration, is now NASA’s primary mission (apart from promoting eco-totalitarian propaganda regarding “Climate Change” and similar political delusions). Burt Rutan and other private aerospace pioneers have grander visions –a “Golden Age of Space Flight” akin to the “Golden Age” of aviation that blossomed following the Wright Brothers’ December 1903 heavier-than-air flight.
“I absolutely have to develop a space tourism system that is at least 100 times safer than anything that has flown man into space, and probably significantly more than that,” declared Rutan after receiving the X Prize. British airline mogul Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Atlantic and the newly created Virgin Galactic, shares that ambition. At the completion of SpaceShipOne’s third mission, Branson announced a deal to license the technology to build a fleet of commercial spacecraft. According to Branson, it could be possible to fly 3,000 people into space on private craft within five years.
In fact, using the “Golden Age” of aviation as a model, the “Golden Age of Space Flight” should have arrived long ago. Greg Maryniak of the X Prize Foundation points out that prior to World War I, the progress of civil aviation was spurred by prizes and competitions sponsored by private interests. In pursuit of those private awards, aviators (with the French leading the pack) set and broke records for distance, duration, and speed. It was in pursuit of a $250,000 prize offered by French expatriate Raymond Orteig that Charles Lindbergh, a gifted college dropout with little formal flight training, but a wealth of barnstorming experience, piloted the Spirit of St. Louis from New York to Paris in 1927.
In 2001, as humanity marked the fourth decade of the age of manned space exploration, “fewer than 500 men and women have experienced space flight,” comments Maryniak. “Two nations, the United States and Russia, have demonstrated the ability to fly people into space”–a list that has been expanded to include Communist China. Prior to the advent of the private SpaceShipOne, a total of three manned space vehicle systems were in use.
By contrast,” continues Maryniak, “almost 200 makes of aircraft were available worldwide by 1912, nine years after the Wright brothers’ … first flight and the year the U.S. government first appropriated money for military aviation. Between 1908 and 1910 approximately 1,000 new pilots were trained worldwide. By 1910 there were 70 different power plants available to aircraft designers.” Once again, this all took place without government intervention or direction of any kind.
“The fundamental difference between early aviation and early space flight is that the public acquired the expectation that space was the sole province of governments,” he concludes. Indeed, the government’s spectacular, and frequent, failures reinforce that monopoly on space flight.
“The perception that all space [travel and exploration] has to be expensive is difficult to change because businesses and investors look to the federal government, NASA, and the aerospace industry for almost everything to do with space,” notes investment adviser David Livingston. “In addition, the public is constantly reminded by the government and the media just how expensive and risky space is, especially with failed NASA missions to Mars, Shuttle [disasters], and … ISS cost overruns.”
In fact, NASA actually sabotaged an effort by a private consortium, the MIR Group, to rescue and privatize the aging and decrepit Soviet/Russian space station. In 2000, as the MIR space station began to lose altitude, RSC Energia, the Russian firm that produces that nation’s rockets and space hardware, entered into an agreement with a group of American investors to create MIR Corp. The venture was “formed specifically to exploit the commercial markets MIR could support, including passenger travel,” recalls attorney James E. Dunstan, head of the Space Law Group.
A lease agreement was worked out, and one MIR rescue mission was undertaken –funded entirely by private investors. But NASA withheld an export permit for a key piece of hardware needed to supply the ailing, aging station with electricity –until after the Russian Space Agency, increasingly dependent on NASA for subsidies, decided to bring down the space station. As author Richard Klerkx pointed out in his book Lost in Space: The Fall of NASA and the Dream of a New Space Age: “NASA did everything it could to frustrate the Americans’ effort [to rescue and privatize MIR]. It doesn’t like private competition in its domain.”
As demonstrated by its shameless obstructionism regarding the MIR Group, NASA’s prime directive is institutional self-preservation, rather than promoting space exploration. But this is to be expected, given that NASA is an appendage of the Leviathan State.
As economist Bob Murphy observes, “the free market is perfectly capable of funding space exploration. Remember that the government can’t produce anything on its own; whatever money it spends is ultimately stolen from taxpayers.” In a very real sense, NASA’s signature accomplishment, the Apollo moon mission, actually impeded technological and intellectual progress by channeling money and resources into a government-decreed enterprise, rather than allowing them to flow to private sector visionaries and investors who may very well have accomplished the same feat much more efficiently and for a fraction of the cost.
“Several years ago,” recalls Murphy, “I predicted to my bemused brother that before I died, I would stand on the Moon. If the government would just get out of the way, my prediction will easily come true.”
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