Trouble Thinking

February 9, 2011

The Future of 21st Century Space Exploration

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Yes, it has been many months since I last contributed to this blog. Now that Trouble Thinking is a madly successful worldwide phenomenon, I return to piggyback on the success I had such a negligible role in creating.

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m a young aerospace engineer. I work for a company which is a part of what is being commonly called “New Space”, that is, a collection of small private companies who are developing technologies and launch vehicles for space exploration. This may not seem like anything remarkable, but for a field that has been dominated by big government agencies and the defense contractors tied to them, it is indeed something of a paradigm shift and a nascent one at that.

I ask that you please take 10 minutes to watch the following video which will serve as an excellent explanation of the state of American space exploration today. It features a confident and well spoken narrator, a thrilling soundtrack, flashy footage of rockets firing, and the lead programmer of Doom and Quake.

Like in all human matters, there are conflicting opinions; the shape that an American space program should take, the future role of NASA, and the limitations of private companies and investors compared to a tax funded government agency.

I think the bigger question is why should the common man care? Many of the readers of this blog are likely not directly tied to the aerospace industry, and thus, the status of the American space program is at best a trivial concern. It is a curiosity only scratched by the occasional story on the news or a segment of some Discovery Channel show. After all, we have bills to pay, families to raise, careers to fulfill, and challenges to overcome just to survive our day to day lives.

So, should you care? Yes. You should care because in two decades time you will have no choice but to care, as a commercial space transportation revolution will have come to fruition and opened doors you never realized were open. Throughout the course of human history, advances in transportation have been the vanguard of every single economic expansion, enabling commerce and improving the standard of living of ordinary citizens on a previously inconceivable scale.

Take the automobile for example. Prior to its invention the most common form of land transportation was a horse drawn carriage, as it had been for centuries up to that point. As we all know, horses have a tendency to shit. They shit a lot. All over the place. The streets of a 1890’s city was very unpleasant to travel, as the roads and gutters were saturated with the foul smelling excrement of the animal so many people depended on.

The adaptation of the automobile was a great leap forward not only by virtue of being able to travel faster with greater range than a horse, but the car had a lovely new feature in that it didn’t shit on your shoes. A few decades after its inception, the car had made the horse drawn carriage practically extinct. City streets were far more sanitary, and the average man reaped the benefits. An entire new industry was born which employed millions and continues to remain a vital part of our lifestyle today.

Before the automobile was commonplace and commonly accepted, there was inertia and resistance. Buggy manufacturers and horse breeders and stable masters and other interests connected to the ‘standard’ method of transportation of the time certainly did not appreciate having their jobs threatened. However, as history shows us, such resistance is ultimately impotent against the relentless tide of human innovation which defines us as a species.

Government aerospace has the potential to become yet another horse and carriage in the timeline of human space transportation. The nascent private space sector is beginning to prove that the same objectives can be accomplished with less money and less time than the old guard. It is my humble opinion that if NASA and other state agencies like it around the world wish to remain relevant, they must change with the times. Cut costs by changing the procurement methods to ones that reward timely efficient success. Refocus the agency’s mission on pure research and high level exploration. Rather than attempting to re-invent the wheel every decade, become a partner with the private sector by purchasing transportation and technology services to accomplish the sorts of missions venture capital cannot undertake alone.

SpaceX, XCOR Aerospace, Virgin Galactic, Masten Space Systems, Armadillo Aerospace… all of these companies are just the beginning of what will soon enough be a vibrant, prosperous, and diverse industry; certain in its inevitability.  Some of these companies may fail, but many more will find success. Open competition between different launch platforms and technologies will drive down the cost of access to space, separating the wheat from the chaff and enabling a new frontier for all of mankind. Regardless of how government run aerospace chooses to act in the coming years, private aerospace will succeed and supersede. It is merely a question of how quickly. By choosing to become an enabling partner of this new industrial revolution, NASA can do far more good for the cause of space exploration and transportation than by positioning itself as a monolithic roadblock.

Thankfully, NASA seems to be trying to take the first steps in a new direction. Whether the politicians in congress will allow them to is another matter entirely. If you’re the politically active sort and you support private space, please let your representatives in congress know that you support private space and a new direction for our national space program. If you disagree, I instead encourage you to sit back, relax, and not worry too much about it. The politicians can handle things without your civic input.

Soon we’ll be living in the future, my friends, and what a spectacular future it may be…

(Self-evident disclaimer: Everything written is the sole opinion of this author, and not any company or government agency)

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