Way back in January 2004, as almost a throwaway line in his State of the Union speech, President Bush proposed returning humans to the moon and eventually to Mars. Many commentators noted that this grandiose public-works proposal seemed to sink like a stone in the sea of public opinion, and the president has not stressed it.
Perhaps, however, the constituency he was addressing was not the American people at all, but the brave little band (well, not so little at $16 billion a year) at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Pummeled by space shuttle failures that neither advanced scientific knowledge nor provided reliable and repeated trips to space, the widely acknowledged uselessness of the space station project and renewed private-sector commercial space travel efforts, the NASAcrats could at least take refuge in the idea that the president still believed in them.
And so, only 20 months later, NASA administrator Michael Griffin has unveiled a $104 billion plan to put Americans on the moon again — in 2018.
The money will come from reordering priorities within NASA’s existing budget and retiring the ill-conceived shuttle.
The moon program is to be cobbled together from modified existing hardware and a new spacecraft similar to the Apollo command capsule of the original moon program that put a dozen Americans on the moon between 1969 and 1972.
A couple of new rockets, based on the 1960s-era Saturn rockets, are supposed to be built.
Perhaps it is commendable that NASA is trying to accomplish something interesting within its existing budget.
However, throwing together a program premised on modifying existing components and marrying them to some new hardware sounds like a formula for integration problems that will inevitably mean delays and cost overruns
Will anybody — beyond Lockheed and Northrop Grumman/Boeing, which will compete for contracts — benefit from this program?
The desire to explore the heavens, like the desire to explore the Earth a few hundred years ago, is an enduring human aspiration.
However, having the government dominate the project assures that it will be expensive, slow and not especially innovative.
Last October, Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites in Mojave showed us the likely future of space travel. SpaceShipOne, which cost about $25 million from the first scratches on a drawing board to successful flights, slipped out of the Earth’s atmosphere twice within a couple of weeks and returned successfully.
Virgin Atlantic chairman Richard Branson immediately announced he was placing an order for several larger spaceships, and Rutan has practically had to fight off investors eager to put money into the next phase of commercial space travel.
A Las Vegas hotelier has announced a plan to build a space hotel.
To be sure, those space ships, and others being developed by competitors, are not designed to go to the moon — not yet.
However, they almost certainly will gradually bring down the cost of venturing into space, open up avenues of imagination that will lead to further developments and provide a steady stream of income to finance future developments, at no cost to taxpayers.
What a concept!
Let those who are really interested in space travel pay for it rather than seizing money from all taxpayers (some of whom are hardly enthusiastic) and building bloated bureaucracies that design jerry-built behemoths.
There may be a role for NASA or a similar government agency in the future as a research organization that develops or refines concepts and technologies and makes them available to private entrepreneurs.
However, since the thrills of the space race in the 1960s, NASA has demonstrated conclusively that it is not the right agency to handle operations.
Nice try, NASA, but it’s time to step aside.