President Bush’s proposal to set up a research base on the moon as a first step to traveling to Mars and beyond is a perplexing mixture of necessary and hardheaded rethinking of government’s role in space — and empty opportunism.
Unfortunately, the proposal doesn’t move beyond an attempt to give the National Aeronautics and Space Administration the real sense of purpose it has lacked for upward of 30 years to serious thinking about what could make space exploration a sustainable activity.
Let’s take the bad first. Proposing new government spending programs, even relatively modest ones, when the government is running record deficits is almost insouciant in its irresponsibility. It has the appearance of using the taxpayers’ money to create the illusion of a president with a cosmic sense of vision and human possibilities — and to give a few selected people some really excellent adventures.
While the additional costs the president has proposed — about $1 billion over the next five years in addition to the current NASA budget of $15 billion a year — is relatively modest, committing to it means either writing off that cost in a few years or buying into an additional program that most experts estimate will cost between $500 billion and $1 trillion to accomplish down the road.
There are aspects of the president’s speech Wednesday that reflect some welcome realism about space travel and NASA. He proposes getting money for the moon project by abandoning the space shuttle program, which should have been done years ago. He also seems to understand that the much-touted international space station is a boondoggle worth almost nothing in scientific terms, to which the United States should make only minimal future contributions.
Bush apparently still sees space as a government project rather than understanding that — like airplanes and computers — space travel will become a reality when it becomes a commercial endeavor from which people can see a way to make money to invest in more ambitious future endeavors.
Gregg Maryniak of the X Prize Foundation in St. Louis does understand that. His organization has offered a $10 million prize to the first private team that comes up with a reusable vehicle suitable for space tourism — specifically, that carries three people to a 100-kilometer (62.5-mile) altitude and returns, then does it again within two weeks.
Sound too visionary? Some 27 teams from seven countries are competing for the prize, and Maryniak expects one of them to win it this year. He expects that to jump-start space tourism, just as Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight to Paris jump-started the aviation industry. Lindbergh was competing for a prize in a contest on which the X-Prize was modeled. Within months — literally — the number of landing strips, airplane makers and those interested in flight increased dramatically.
That’s the way to get things going. If the government wants a lab on the moon, it should look to momentum from the private sector, and offer a prize to the first private company to plan and design a moon lab that meets the specifications. That could lead to a sustainable space program, rather than one that is treated (as NASA is and is likely to be) as a pleasant hobby rather than a core government function.