October 5, 2005

HOLMAN JENKINS looks at NASA’s latest plans with a skeptical eye — and notes the impact of spacebloggers and space advocates:

There’s now a popular constituency for space policy that does more than just tune in for the blast-off extravaganzas. Blame the Web: We told you last year how seething space fans had kept Congress’s feet to the fire and ended up saving a bill designed to speed development of private space tourism.

The same folks are also a source of critique of NASA’s Exploration Systems Architecture Study, issued last month, mostly in consultation with the usual suspects — the giant aerospace contractors, who’ve been NASA’s primary iron triangle sounding board since Gemini. Now there’s an effective peanut gallery, their voices magnified by the Web, which has sprouted numerous sites devoted to criticizing and kibitzing about NASA.

The critics won’t be flyswatted away for one big reason. NASA’s “return to the moon” efforts over the coming decade, as budgets bloat and deadlines are missed, will take place against a background of much faster progress in private spaceflight endeavors. . . .

NASA’s moon plans are a budget bluff — at best, a cipher for a space policy to be named later, once the political landscape has shifted and it will be possible finally to pull the plug on the shuttle, the space station and NASA’s whole failing model of human spaceflight.

What will cause this shift in the landscape? Successful private space endeavors — which, despite setbacks, through trial and error and animal spirits, will begin to show that men and material can be moved off the earth and into orbit affordably by spreading the cost over many flights, routinely undertaken. Only then can the next stage of manned space exploration really start.

Hence a powerful line of criticism aimed at NASA from the non-usual suspects. NASA’s program has a “fundamental unseriousness about it,” complains Rand Simberg, a former aerospace engineer, at his Web site Transterrestrial Musings. “A serious program would be based on a foundation of an infrastructure that would dramatically reduce the marginal costs of getting to orbit, operating in orbit, and getting to the points beyond low earth orbit.”

Adds the Space Access Society’s Henry Vanderbilt: NASA should “let go of controlling their own space transportation from start to finish” and “put the entire ground-to-orbit leg of their new deep space missions out to bid.”

Says consultant Charles Lurio: “Instead of ‘pork from space’ we see the prospect now of practical industries from space, developing on their own.”

We put these views in the paper as a public service. NASA can be expected to dismiss them. Most of the media, bound up in its notion of legitimate “sources,” reports only the views of NASA, the lobbying sector and the congressional delegations whose main interest is keeping the pork flowing.

My thoughts on the subject can be found here.

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