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One Small Step for Space Technology, One Giant Step for Space Policy

By Frank White

When the Dragon capsule built by SpaceX docked with the International Space Station, it was a triumph not just for spacecraft but for space policy. The howls of dismay at the canceling of the shuttle program had drowned out the cheers of those who welcomed the administration’s emphasis on private enterprise.

President Barack Obama’s opponents have roundly criticized him for being a strong government advocate who doesn’t understand the importance of the private sector. Yet it is during his presidency that we have reversed decades of government-centric space policy by actively encouraging a wider role for free enterprise in Low Earth Orbit. Specifically, the administration confirmed that private companies like SpaceX would provide the spacecraft that resupply the space station and eventually send American astronauts there. The politics of the situation created some strange bedfellows, with conservative Republicans lobbying to continue what amounted to a massive government program. Some Apollo astronauts entered the fray and argued against the new policy in part because it abandoned a return to the moon.

When covering the transformation of the space program, the media got it wrong by amplifying the negative comments and overlooking the positive aspects of the new policy. As a result, I found that many people would say to me, “Oh, you’re interested in space exploration? Too bad we don’t have a space program any more.” What these people did not realize is that the U.S. does have a space program, it’s just very different from the old one. The new space policy is better suited to an age of budget austerity and the idolization of the entrepreneur.

Critics failed to note that the administration had not developed its space policy out of whole cloth. Rather, it had relied on the U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee—known as the Augustine Committee—led by the highly respected Norman Augustine, retired chairman and chief executive officer of the Lockheed Martin Corporation and a former undersecretary of the Army. The Committee’s function was to make recommendations on what to do in the post-Bush space exploration era. It noted that the U.S. human spaceflight program “seems to be on an unsustainable trajectory.” NASA had been saddled with a commitment to return to the moon while also laying the groundwork for a manned mission to Mars. Realizing that NASA could not possibly do everything that was asked of it, the committee laid out a number of scenarios.  Among these, they suggested that NASA focus on deep space exploration, including missions to the asteroids and Mars, leaving the building of infrastructure in Low Earth Orbit to others. In this scenario, there was no return to the moon. The Obama administration largely followed the committee’s lead, eventually resulting in the flight of the Dragon and entrepreneurs seizing the opportunity to open up a new frontier.

The Apollo mission was extremely important because the views of Earth from space provided to us by the astronauts changed how we saw our place in the universe. This “Overview Effect” helped give birth to the environmental movement and has supported an emerging belief in global citizenship that transcends national boundaries. For this reason, I still believe that President Kennedy made the most important space policy decision of all time when he committed America to go to the moon. But President Obama’s decision to give the private sector a chance ranks second, because it changes everything once again. From now on, what humans do beyond the Earth’s atmosphere will not be driven only by government priorities but also by the entrepreneurial spirit.

This is critical because private enterprise seeks to provide services to more and more people, driving down costs in the process. Most observers of the space program agree that the key to opening up the “high frontier” is lowering the cost of access to Low Earth Orbit. What we call “space” is actually closer to the surface of the Earth than New York is to Boston. While it is relatively inexpensive to put six people in a car and drive from one of those cities to the other, it was very expensive for the government to load six astronauts onto the shuttle and send them into orbit.

Despite talking about lowering costs of space travel for more than 50 years, government space agencies have failed to do it, and as a result, only a total of about 500 people have actually had the spaceflight experience. While this has already exerted a powerful influence on our worldview and self-identity because of the Overview Effect, the impact could be much greater. Consider what will happen if 500 people or more are flying in a year. This quantitative change could trigger a qualitative shift in how we think about the world and our place in it.

In the past, opening up new physical or mental frontiers has been most effective through public/private partnerships. The Internet is a good example. Originally developed by the government, it is now a hotbed of entrepreneurial ventures, bringing the benefits of computing and networking to billions of people worldwide.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the first person to capitalize on the new American space policy is Elon Musk, who made his fortune as co-founder of Paypal. The kind of partnership that created the Internet and its amazing applications can now be utilized in space exploration and development—with equally dramatic and far-reaching results. 

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Frank White is the author of The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, first published in 1987 and re-issued in 1998.

[Photo courtesy of Flickr]

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