December 21, 2003


A New Pathway to the Stars (TIMOTHY FERRIS, 12/21/03, NY Times)

Talk has been that President Bush is preparing a bold new mission plan for NASA, much as John F. Kennedy did in 1961 when he committed the nation to putting a man on the Moon before the end of the decade. Some space enthusiasts are urging Mr. Bush to aim for Mars, but the long time lines involved suggest that he would wind up, as his father did, with nothing to show for it but a few NASA reports with soaring price tags attached and a nagging sense that he'd been had. Others talk of building yet another space station, higher up — perhaps at the "L 1 point," between Earth and the Moon — but to say that you are exploring space by orbiting inside a tin can is like claiming to have explored the Atlantic because you made an ocean-liner crossing in a cabin below the waterline.

A better target would be the Moon. I know, I know: at first blush it sounds like a case of "Been there, done that." But a new lunar campaign could reinvigorate the manned space program and open up the solar system to future exploration — if we do it right. That doesn't mean another Apollo-style "flags and footprints" bash that briefly doubles the NASA budget and then shrinks it back again, leaving everyone with indelible memories and a crippling hangover.

Rather, it means establishing a permanent lunar base, where explorers can refine the technology and techniques required to colonize Mars, in cooperation with other nations and with private entrepreneurs, all without irresponsibly increasing NASA's budget or shortchanging its admirable robotic space-probe programs. That may be a tall order, but — à la the Wright brothers — the venture's success depends less on money than on dedication, ingenuity and innovation.

Wny not do both--a permanent base on the Moon and manned trips to Mars with the goal of putting a permanent base there too.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 21, 2003 10:36 AM

I'd prefer a concentrated R&D program to create an efficient Earth orbiter. Once we can get payloads into Earth orbit cheaply and reliably, all the rest will come. The Shuttle is ancient technology, I don't think the space program can survive another shuttle disaster.

Posted by: Robert D at December 21, 2003 12:07 PM

Mr. Judd;

You're advocating a nationalized space industry? That would seem to be far to European to succeed. It is precisely that kind of "grand plan" sponsored by government that's kept us mired in obsolete technology. If President Bush were serious about space technology (and not grandstanding with our tax dollars) he'd forbid NASA from building launch vehicles and guarantee rent payments for orbital space. Then let America's strength, a free market, deliver. Read up on the Wright Brothers centennary - it wasn't big government programs that gave us the skies.


You mean like the concentrated R&D that gave us the Space Shuttle?

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at December 21, 2003 2:01 PM

We need a space program that functions a lot like the US Marshalls, US Army and US Geological Survey did in the last half of the 19th century-- the government provides law and order and maps, and lets everyone else figure out what to do next. And maybe toss in some land-grants to the interplanetary equivalent to the railroads. Let's build on a model that worked.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at December 21, 2003 2:33 PM


I know y'all enthusiasts are fond of saying that, but where is the space exploration version of UPS or Fedex? Either governments fund exploration or it doesn't get done.

Posted by: oj at December 21, 2003 2:49 PM

Because they are both tremendous wastes of money. If it were profitable someone would do it with his own money, if not, it should not be done with public money.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at December 21, 2003 11:41 PM

Mr. Judd;

UPS and FedEx required the basic transport technology to be developed first. Same with space transport. You should note that the primary contribution of the government in that area was bulk mail transport contracts, which did quite a bit to push the technology that eventually made FedEx possible. Not to mention that the federal government has made strong efforts to prevent private space transport through various regulations. We enthusiasts are suggesting that maybe the feds should go with something that worked and made UPS/FedEx possible, rather than following the failed industrial policy of the USSR.

I invite you to look up Rutan's SpaceShip One project. For $30 million, this company built a supersonic aircraft. You find me a government agency that could do that, or could even get itself set up with a building for only $30M.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at December 22, 2003 11:45 AM


Yes, once the kingdoms found and founded the Americas the privateers followed in their wake, like pilot fish. No doubt once bases are established on other planets the corporations will follow too. But they've ample opportunity to fill the exploration and pioneering gap and they've done nothing. Free enterprise won't do it, so if we think it worth doing the state must..

Posted by: OJ at December 22, 2003 12:17 PM

For now, the State must.

There were many attempts to build profitable railroads before the 19th century, but most failed. The reason that railroading exploded was that metallurgy finally caught up to desire.

At some point, even if all current attempts fail, the march of technology will allow private organizations to exploit space, (including terrorists), and then we'll see the golden age of space blossom.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at December 23, 2003 5:23 AM