Editors' note: This is part of a series examining 50 years of space exploration.
The birth of modern aviation probably lies in Charles Lindbergh's 1927 flight across the Atlantic, which won him a $25,000 prize and a ticker-tape parade down New York's Fifth Avenue.
By showing the world to be just a little smaller than before, Lindbergh fathered the 20th century's transportation revolution. The airship named after German entrepreneur Ferdinand von Zeppelin took its maiden flight the next year, and by the early 1930s both Boeing and Douglas were selling passenger planes to fledgling airlines including TWA, United and American. Not long afterward, the famous Douglas DC-3 made transcontinental flights practical.
Compare the rapid progress in aviation with America's experience in space travel. Fifty years after Sputnik 1's launch in October 1957, mankind has set foot on precisely one other world (a moon, at that), the space shuttle has at best a 1-in-50 chance of disaster upon each launch, and a completed space station is still a few years out. Since the last moon landing 35 years ago, in fact, mankind has not ventured beyond low Earth orbit again.
The difference? Critics say it's the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Aviation's youth and adolescence were marked by entrepreneurs and frenetic commercial activity: Lindbergh's trans-Atlantic prize money was put up by a New York hotel owner, and revenue from the airlines funded the development of the famous DC-3. The federal government aided aviation by paying private pilots to deliver air mail.
Space, by contrast, until recently has remained the domain of NASA. Burt Rutan, the aerospace engineer famous for building a suborbital rocket plane that won the Ansari X Prize, believes NASA is crowding out private efforts. "Taxpayer-funded NASA should only fund research and not development," Rutan said during a recent panel discussion at the California Institute of Technology. "When you spend hundreds of billions of dollars to build a manned spacecraft, you're...dumbing down a generation of new, young engineers (by saying), 'No, you can't take new approaches, you have to use this old technology.'"
Rutan and his fellow pilots, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs have undertaken a formidable task: To demonstrate to the public that space travel need not be synonymous with government programs. In fact, many of them say NASA has become more of a hindrance than a help.
From moon landings to freight hauling
Soon after its creation in the 1950s, NASA captured the hearts of America's youth with vistas of outer space and other worlds, illustrated by unforgettable moments like Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon.
But by the late 1990s, the agency seemed to have become more moribund than innovative. In 1999 alone, NASA lost the Mars Climate Orbiter (because of English-Metric unit conversion problems) and Mars Polar Lander (likely because of a programming error). Then, after spending $1.6 billion on space plane research, NASA abruptly abandoned the project.
Late that year, NASA's problem-ridden Hubble Space Telescope was offline for more than a month. And NASA shuttle launches seemed to have devolved into repair missions and transportation for science experiments. Its mission, in other words, seemed to be shifting from historic accomplishments to the more matter-of-fact business of freight hauling.
The shuttle had become so problematic that Time Magazine published an article titled: "The Space Shuttle Must Be Stopped." It dispassionately listed the shuttle's failings: It was intended to be an example of American technological prowess; instead it is fragile and antiquated (until recently the flight deck computers used 1978-vintage 8086 microprocessors). It was supposed to be flown every week; instead it flies a few times a year. It was supposed to cost $5 million a flight; instead it costs a staggering $1.3 billion a flight.
NASA leadership also discouraged private space travel. Then-administrator Dan Goldin publicly disparaged millionaire Dennis Tito's choice to pay a reported $20 million to fly to the space station on a Russian spacecraft, calling the former NASA scientist "un-American" for doing so. A few years earlier, though, NASA had flown a lawyer and insurance executive named Jake Garn and Bill Nelson--who had become influential members of the U.S. Congress--on space shuttle missions. Also during Goldin's tenure, NASA also took steps to block entrepreneurs at Russia's MirCorp from being able to use Russian supply rockets or gain access to a key tether that could have helped to keep Mir aloft.
But the Commercial Space Act of 1998 eliminated the long-standing prohibition on bringing vehicles and people back and forth from space and opened the door to what would become the commercial space industry of today. (Six years later, the federal government formally gave approval for Rutan's SpaceShipOne to launch a suborbital flight in pursuit of the X Prize.)
Peter Diamandis, chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation and a private space entrepreneur, says NASA can remain relevant--but only by focusing on what for-profit companies won't do. "NASA should be in focusing on breakthroughs in propulsion systems. They should be taking very high risks, funding things that are likely to fail because that's what government should be doing, pushing the envelope," he said in an interview with CNET News.com.
For its part, NASA says it's moving in that direction, pointing to policy directives including one from 2005 decreeing that the agency "will normally procure launch services for NASA and NASA-sponsored primary payloads from commercial providers."
"We're trying to get out of this low Earth orbit business," said Ken Davidian, program manager for NASA's Centennial Challenges program. "If there are commercial suppliers of space capabilities like launch vehicles for cargo delivery, we're required by law to use them. We want to use them. The premise is that those services will be cheaper to buy than to use ourselves."
Is NASA worth $17.6 billion next year?
But if private industry can reliably transport people and cargo to space, is it still necessary to funnel $17.6 billion a year to NASA? Or could that money be better spent on, say, tax breaks to encourage the development of a world-class private space industry?
"One way is to have a vibrant private sector model so people can see that space is a place, not a government program," said Ed Hudgins, executive director of the free-market-advocating Atlas Society and editor of the book Space: The Free-Market Frontier. "It's a place where you can do science, you can do work, you can explore, you can live. None of those functions are uniquely government functions."
Other free-market advocates call for a "phase out" of NASA, meaning privatization of the space station and enforcement of an existing restriction on not using the shuttle to carry cargo that can be handled by private launches. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, a largely autonomous part of NASA that's managed by the California Institute of Technology, could continue unmanned planetary probes, and so on.
That would reduce the risk of recurring budget overruns--which happened not just with the shuttle program, but the space station as well. It was originally supposed to cost $8 billion, have a crew of 12, and be complete by the mid-1990s; now it has a crew of three and is expected to cost at least $130 billion when it's finally finished in 2010.
Politically, though, NASA privatization isn't likely anytime soon. The Bush administration has asked for NASA's budget to be increased to $17.3 billion for the 2008 fiscal year, which the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives upped last month to $17.6 billion. Much of the extra money would be spent on the space station.
"We're going to be relevant in the things that commercial can't do--all the exploration stuff," said Davidian, the NASA program manager. "We're going to push the boundaries out and hopefully commercial industry will be back-filling...so NASA can keep pushing out further." Another area would be sending signals to the investment community, he added.
One change is that Michael Griffin, NASA's administrator since April 2005, seems less hostile to the private sector than his predecessor. In a speech last month, he recited NASA's current goals, including the Ares rockets and the Orion crew vehicle. Then he extended this olive branch: "This is the exploration work to be done over the next 10 to 15 years, and I hope to entice international and commercial partners to be part of turning these ideas into reality."
Instead of privatization, a more modest form of legislative tinkering might be tax incentives. One federal bill from 2005, the Zero Gravity, Zero Tax Act, would create a 25-year tax moratorium on profits derived from space manufacturing. A more radical proposal would create an X Prize-like corporate tax reward: the first company to erect a base on the moon (or Mars) would be immune from all taxes for the duration.
"Ideally I want to move to a world without NASA," said Hudgins, editor of the private space travel book. "For the same reason we don't have a world with the Western Settlements Bureau of the federal government. There's no need for one. The West has been settled, and it was mostly settled by private individuals getting out there through private means. The frontier is the model for becoming a space-faring civilization."
News.com's Stefanie Olsen contributed to this report
Day 1: Private industry moves to take over space race
The space race taking shape in the private sector today is due in large part to boyhood dreams of becoming astronauts.
Day 1: Space entrepreneur shoots for the moon
Space Adventures CEO Peter Diamandis talks about the future of private space travel to the moon and beyond.
Day 1: Key milestones in space exploration
A timeline of some of the events that brought humans into space and will guide where we go next.
Day 2: Silicon galaxy
Technologies developed by NASA have led to some of the most important commercial innovations to come out of Silicon Valley.
Day 2: The satellite age
The commercial satellite market has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry, but future growth could suffer.
Day 3: Do we need NASA?
Is NASA still worth spending more than $16 billion in taxpayer money each year?
Day 3: Designing a 21st-century space suit
MIT professor Dava Newman tells how the form-fitting BioSuit will help give NASA a ready-to-wear outfit for the moon and Mars.
Memories from the space age
CNET News.com readers (and writers) share their memories from the early days of space exploration. October 5, 2007
Japan probe approaches moon
A new space race is getting under way, with as many as five nations expecting to land hardware on the moon within five years. October 4, 2007
Who's who in space travel
The private sector is laying the groundwork for a new era of space exploration. October 3, 2007
A half-century of space flight
We take a look at how the ships that enable space exploration are evolving. October 1, 2007
Strange visitors to other planets
The first Voyager spacecraft left Earth 30 years ago. Now, nearly 10 billion miles from home, they aren't finished yet.August 28, 2007
Building a better space suit
At MIT and the University of North Dakota, researchers are trying out new designs to clothe astronauts heading to Mars. July 18, 2007
Stellar views from the Hubble at 17
NASA and ESA celebrate the Hubble Space Telescope's anniversary with colliding stars and supernovas.April 25, 2007
The race to space: Recalling Sputnik
The Baltimore Sun
Science Times special coverage
New York Times
The next 50 years in space
Happy birthday, Sputnik! (Thanks for the Internet)
Thank Sputnik for today's orbital freedom
Christian Science Monitor
Editors: Jennifer Guevin, Jim Kerstetter
Design: Andrew Ballagh
Production: Madeleine Kempton
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