Tuesday, October 27, 2009

NASA at the Crossroads

When I was in college, many of my astronomy classmates joined a group called "Students for the Exploration and Development of Space". Although I strongly support exploration, I didn't join the group because I felt uneasy about the "development" of space -- to some people this means glowing billboards in low-earth orbit, or inflatable space hotels for wealthy clients. In an era of dwindling support for the space program, NASA is wrestling with similar questions about the future.

This week NASA is scheduled to launch the new Ares I-X, an experimental version of the rocket that is supposed to replace the space shuttle. Unfortunately the Ares is unlikely to be ready by the time the space shuttles are retired at the end of 2010, leaving at least a 5-year gap in the ability of NASA to send astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). NASA is hesitant to extend the life of the shuttle program, since the accidents in 1986 and 2003 raised fundamental questions about safety. The other immediate option is to hitch a ride to the ISS with the Russians for a few years until the Ares rocket is finished. But a committee appointed by the Obama administration earlier this year would like to see a different solution. Led by a former aerospace executive, the panel concluded that NASA should turn over the business of putting astronauts in orbit to private companies.

The notion of a "public-private" partnership for space exploration involves large public subsidies to aerospace companies, who will then take over the business when it is mature and collect the profits. Of course the risks would continue to be insured by the government, not the private sector. Former NASA administrator Michael Griffin is skeptical about the safety of commercial space travel, commenting that the plan "will work right up until there is the first accident." But Elon Musk, founder of the private launch company SpaceX, disagrees. "It's incredibly bad business to kill your customers", he said. There are other private launch companies with a longer track record, but none have any experience putting people into orbit. So the problem remains.

Perhaps the most sensible thing for NASA to do is once again rethink its long-term objectives. The "Vision for Space Exploration" set forth by the Bush administration will only funnel more money to aerospace companies -- fueling the "development" of space at the expense of "exploration" that would provide real scientific advancement.