Last Thursday, Mr. Athanasius Georgy wrote: “If a promising future of space exploration is to be had, missions and research need to be placed in the hands of NASA alone,” an assertion I must strongly contend with. The future of space exploration is the exact opposite. Rather than remaining the exclusive prerogative of national governments, space must be democratized! Elon Musk looks toward the day when humanity will become a multi-planet species, and he founded SpaceX with that vision. Even if that day never comes, humanity still needs to bring the rich resources of space back to Earth. Scientists studying alternate energy sources, such as fusion, need helium-3, which is rare on Earth but abundant on the moon. At some time in the next 15 years, Earth will almost certainly run out of the extremely rare platinum-group metals that we need to make catalytic converters, cell phones and pacemakers. If commercial space exploration takes off, asteroid mining will be the answer.
Even after considering the Wallops Island explosion, there are few, if any, drawbacks for NASA in continuing to contract with private companies. The International Space Station will still get the supplies it needs on time, and Orbital Sciences is still required to successfully perform all of its contracted flights -— the taxpayer does not bear any burden for the mishap. NASA is not being reckless in its dealings either. Orbital Sciences has a 95 percent success rate for 284 launches in the last 30 years, and SpaceX was required to demonstrate its technology before being awarded spaceflight contracts. NASA also makes contracts with firms that have greater name recognition, like Boeing, which was contracted to begin ferrying crew to the ISS within the next few years.
Any setbacks NASA has experienced in recent years are less the fault of political maneuvering and more the fault of waning public interest. The public’s interest can and should be regained. By making agreements with private companies to use their rockets, NASA is encouraging the growth of the nascent space cargo industry. We can reasonably expect that growth will lead to better technology, and better technology will lead to cheaper flights, making space more accessible. A robust private space industry would revive the public’s imagination, encourage more kids to pursue STEM careers and stimulate America’s faltering manufacturing sector.
I also take issue with the idea that competition is somehow bad for launching rockets. In fact, NASA has a long history of working with competitive contracts, and competition is a core component of the American economy. If NASA were not contracting Orbital Sciences and SpaceX to buy cargo on their rockets, then it would still be contracting with the same companies to buy the rockets outright. The Space Shuttle program involved NASA contracts with Boeing, Alliant Techsystems, Lockheed Martin, United Technologies and others. These contracts were mostly on a “cost-plus” basis, meaning NASA agreed to cover the costs of development plus guarantee a profit for the contractors. Companies like SpaceX build their own rockets and agree to fixed-price contracts, giving them the incentive to develop efficient designs. Efforts to go to space are now more unified and economical than ever.
NASA is absolutely right to make contracts that allow private companies to develop their own rocket technology. It’s a far better solution than relying on Russia, and it is already proven to be cheaper than NASA’s old way of dictating to the contractors what the technology should look like. In the short term, NASA is supporting scientific research. In the long term, NASA’s contracts with bright companies like Orbital Sciences and SpaceX will usher in a new age of economic growth and jumpstart humanity’s reach for the stars.
Note: On Friday, after I had written a draft of this response, a Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo manned test vehicle crashed in the Mojave Desert. One pilot was killed, and the other was severely injured. I do not intend to trivialize this terrible tragedy; it is not comparable to the explosion of the unmanned Antares. Space exploration is a true challenge that takes bravery and determination, and my thoughts and prayers are with the families affected.
Senior, computer engineering and computer science major