Commentary Magazine


Topic: NASA

America is Forfeiting the Space Race

A former colleague brings to my attention two stories which should raise concern. President Obama talks about investment in science but, in practice, such investment gets siphoned off into entitlements or teachers unions, rather than research.

First, this, an article reporting that the Pentagon is using a Chinese satellite for its U.S. Africa Command:

Use of China’s Apstar-7 satellite was leased because it provided “unique bandwidth and geographic requirements” for “wider geographic coverage” requested in May 2012 by the U.S. Africa Command, according to Lieutenant Colonel Monica Matoush, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

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A former colleague brings to my attention two stories which should raise concern. President Obama talks about investment in science but, in practice, such investment gets siphoned off into entitlements or teachers unions, rather than research.

First, this, an article reporting that the Pentagon is using a Chinese satellite for its U.S. Africa Command:

Use of China’s Apstar-7 satellite was leased because it provided “unique bandwidth and geographic requirements” for “wider geographic coverage” requested in May 2012 by the U.S. Africa Command, according to Lieutenant Colonel Monica Matoush, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

Mike Rogers (R-Alabama) is absolutely correct to raise alarm, but there should be greater consequences. The Pentagon spends tens of millions of dollars in background investigations, yet it evidently doesn’t yet screen for good judgment. The decision chain to use a Chinese satellite for sensitive communications does great harm, but those making it will face no consequence. That the United States is now in a position where it must rely on its No. 1 cyber enemy for satellite access is a sad testament to a couple decades of space program mismanagement.

And as the Pentagon prepares to furlough civilian employees, those unemployed or underemployed should read this:

NASA is paying $424 million more to Russia to get U.S. astronauts into space, and the agency’s leader is blaming Congress for the extra expense. NASA announced its latest contract with the Russian Space Agency on Tuesday. The $424 million represents flights to and from the International Space Station aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft, as well as training, for six astronauts in 2016 and the first half of 2017. That’s $70.6 million per seat — well above the previous price tag of about $65 million. Russia currently provides the only means of getting people to and from the space station, and its ticket prices have soared with each new contract.

When the United States loses capability, it will end up paying through the nose to those who maintain it. Politicians who figure that countries like Russia would give the U.S. a good deal when given a monopoly probably don’t know the first thing about the free market. How shameful that the former communists must be the ones to school the White House.

There is countless waste in Washington, and scores of programs that come nowhere near the core mission of the U.S. government and could be better managed by the private sector. For those reasons alone, the U.S. government should shed them. While private companies are picking up some slack in space—and probably could advance further if not hampered by make-work government regulators—there remains a huge role for the resources of government-employed researchers to keep America in the lead.

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy declared, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” How sad that just over a half-century later, the president who fancies himself as the successor to Camelot presides over a space program that enriches Russia and advances China.

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Space Ship Launch Opens New Vistas

It’s difficult to exaggerate the importance of what Elon Musk’s SpaceX corporation did a few days ago when it launched a space ship that docked with the international space station. It is as significant, in its way, as the first commercial airline flight in the U.S. which was undertaken in 1914 by the St. Petersburg-Tampa Air Boat Line. It heralds the moment when space flight is moving out of the domain of government and into the private sector, potentially opening vast new vistas of travel.

There are, to be sure, significant differences between the history of flight inside the Earth’s atmosphere and outside of it. The former was, from the start, a private undertaking launched not by the Theodore Roosevelt administration but by the Wright Brothers, a pair of bicycle mechanics. The latter was, famously, a NASA mission undertaken beginning in 1958 by an Eisenhower administration eager to match Soviet achievements in space. But aviation, too, received a significant boost from the government–aircraft design took a major leap forward because of the efforts of various air forces to build more efficient aircraft in World War I and thereafter, commercial airlines developed either under state ownership (as in Europe with the forerunners of British Airways, Air France, Lufthansa, etc.) or with major state subsidies (as was the case in the U.S. where the Postal Service paid airlines to carry the mail).

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It’s difficult to exaggerate the importance of what Elon Musk’s SpaceX corporation did a few days ago when it launched a space ship that docked with the international space station. It is as significant, in its way, as the first commercial airline flight in the U.S. which was undertaken in 1914 by the St. Petersburg-Tampa Air Boat Line. It heralds the moment when space flight is moving out of the domain of government and into the private sector, potentially opening vast new vistas of travel.

There are, to be sure, significant differences between the history of flight inside the Earth’s atmosphere and outside of it. The former was, from the start, a private undertaking launched not by the Theodore Roosevelt administration but by the Wright Brothers, a pair of bicycle mechanics. The latter was, famously, a NASA mission undertaken beginning in 1958 by an Eisenhower administration eager to match Soviet achievements in space. But aviation, too, received a significant boost from the government–aircraft design took a major leap forward because of the efforts of various air forces to build more efficient aircraft in World War I and thereafter, commercial airlines developed either under state ownership (as in Europe with the forerunners of British Airways, Air France, Lufthansa, etc.) or with major state subsidies (as was the case in the U.S. where the Postal Service paid airlines to carry the mail).

After decades of government monopolization it appears that space flight is moving in the same direction as aviation, with NASA switching increasingly from an agency that does spacecraft design and launching in-house to one that provides subsidies to private companies such as a SpaceX to do the job themselves. To be sure, the U.S. military must and will remain a major player in space which has become vital for running communications and surveillance networks and could even be used to orbit strike platforms in the future. But the civilian role in space appears to be increasingly a joint venture between government and industry–and that is likely to prove a greater success in the long run than the exclusively NASA path which reached a dead end with the grounding of the last space shuttle last year.

It is good to see the rude energies of the private sector finally being directed beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. With passenger flights to space looming, the future of space travel looks bright for the first time since the launch of the initial space shuttle in 1982.

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