(Reprinted from the Metro Spirit, 5/30/2012)
Once again, I’ve been bamboozled.
Last year I wrote a eulogy on the Space Shuttle and the decaying state of the U.S. space program. All the political hacks and talking heads couldn’t stop making hay over the demise of U.S. dominance in space. With the end of the Shuttle, our country no longer had the means to reach the Space Station. In order to remain dominant, funding to NASA needs to be increased…and so on.
And I bought it. After all it’s easy to envision a bunch of Washington politicos securing their districts by shifting funds from NASA to food stamps. Most certainly, our space program is simply just the first victim of Obamacare’s death panel.
What I failed to consider, however, is that a government that spends almost $4 trillion a year, approximately 25% of our total economy, can pretty much get whatever it wants.
Fast forward to last week…The private space company, SpaceX, launched its Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station. Without the Shuttle, the Dragon is the only spacecraft in the world capable of returning significant cargo from the space station. The capsule is 14.4 feet high and 12 feet in diameter, capable of transporting 7,300 lbs to orbit. Indeed, this space transport system was designed to carry up to seven astronauts at one time.
Other than a slight delay in the original launch date, the mission has been flawless. This is the first mission of Dragon to the International Space Station, and the first of any privately-owned spacecraft to dock with the ISS. The docking was accomplished on May 26th, and upon opening the hatch, flight engineer Donald Pettit commented on the cargo capacity of the spacecraft, and the fact that the spacecraft had a “new car” smell. Right now, the Dragon space craft remains docked to the International Space Station, and approximately a half a ton of payload has been transferred to the ISS, the first significant transfer since the last mission.
So you may ask, what’s my gripe? I’m just wondering why no one bothered to mention this project when everyone was lamenting the end of the shuttle. Did no one know about the $1.6B contract with SpaceX and a similar $1.9B contract with Orbital Sciences? Didn’t anyone read about the test launches that had already occurred? Of course, they did. The end of the shuttle can was used to create a crisis. And what’s the saying…you never want a crisis go to waste?
The crisis that the NASA bureaucracy is fighting is the privatization and globalization of space flight. Not long ago, NASA held a virtual monopoly on spaceflight. Today, several countries including India, China and Japan are developing unmanned lunar vehicles. In addition, twenty-six teams are competing for the Global Lunar X Prize – a contest that will award $20M to the first private company that can land a robot on the lunar surface, travel one-third of a mile and send back a high-definition image before 2015. The winner will get an additional $4M if they can take a picture of a man-made object.
In response to all this activity, NASA has sent a message to the world, “Please don’t touch our stuff.”
Recently, the agency released a set of guidelines with the objective to preserve important historical locations such as the Apollo landing sites. Dust kicked up by rovers or malfunctioning equipment presents a risk to the existing hardware and foot prints. “Only one misstep could forever damage this priceless human treasure,” reads the report.
While it’s no doubt that increased traffic on the moon will have a negative impact on some lunar science, I’m not convinced that lunar environmentalism is the right approach. Granted, the lunar landing was of great historical importance. But there is another perspective on the story…
A few guys spent the weekend at Tranquility Base lunar resort. While there, they went joy riding in a $250M dune buggy. After a few days, they headed back home. Unfortunately, they couldn’t take the dune buggy, so they left it with the keys in the ignition and the engine running. Why should anyone be surprised that some space alien wouldn’t strip the thing and leave it setting on blocks?
In all seriousness, how is the equipment left on the moon any different than the millions of dollars in military infrastructure that we have abandoned in Iraq and Afghanistan? As far as I’m concerned, go get the junk, and sell it on eBay. Until next week, I’m off the grid. @gregory_a_baker