NASA's Role in Commercial Spaceflight

Should the government finance the exploration and settlement of the final frontier? Or should it be left to private individuals and corporations? This question has plagued the aerospace community since before the Apollo program. Here’s my two cents.

I think [NASA’s COTS program]( is a step in the right direction. Governments should, in my opinion, always bear the financial risk inherent in scientific research and the exploration of frontiers. That’s what they’re there for.

Currently, there is no motivation for private industry to finance an extremely risky endeavor such as a Mars mission or colony. And, as the aerospace industry is currently structured, with behemoths like Lockheed and Boeing accustomed to the cost-plus nature of defense contracts, there is also very little incentive for anything to be done quickly or cheaply — especially when the government is footing the bill.

I believe [SpaceX]( is on the right track, by creating a tech-startup atmosphere which demands innovation and frugality, and offering a necessary service to NASA at a cost which the big aerospace players will find hard to match.

The ideal scenario would be for companies like SpaceX, Bigelow, tSpace and others to collaborate on risky exploration missions (like a Moon or Mars base), for which they would receive a fixed sum of venture capital (if you will) from NASA. This type of strategy will be far more effective and efficient than NASA itself could ever be, while helping to mitigate the financial risk for the players involved.

Like it or not, the final goal of a corporation must be to serve its investors, while the goal of government is to foresee and ensure the needs of its citizenry. Thankfully, there are citizens like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos who are willing to risk their personal fortunes to advance the state of the art of human spaceflight. Our government needs to see their vision and help them in any way possible, so that we can escape the bloated lethargy in which the legacy aerospace giants are mired.

Musk and Bezos both view a permanent Mars colony as an essential step forward in the advancement of human civilization, and I agree with them. Musk specifically claims the long-term goal of SpaceX is to create a multi-planet species. Like most space enthusiasts, they feel so strongly about these beliefs that they are willing to take any risk to make them a reality. I know I would hardly think twice about the enormous physical risks of spaceflight if I was presented the opportunity to fly.

It just so happens that Musk and Bezos are billionaires, and they’re also willing to risk their personal fortunes. But neither of their business plans are based on a Mars colony. SpaceX will survive with satellites and (maybe) ISS resupply, and Blue Origin will (hopefully) have paying suborbital joyriders.

Clearly, there is no foreseeable means for a corporation to justify the financial risk involved in a Mars colony. There is presently no clear return on investment for a speculative endeavor such as this, as their would be for say, an oil company to finance exploration for opening new oilfields or drilling platforms.

Boeing and Lockheed are enormous entities who risk vast sums of money when they introduce products for non-military markets. Had the 747 not been such a huge success, for example, Boeing would not be around today. The A380 debacle may well bankrupt Airbus.

Believe me, if the aerospace giants thought there was a payday on Mars, we would be there. But they know that the only way they’ll make money off human Mars exploration–at least in the short term–is to wait for Uncle Sam to foot the bill. (Or for China to get there first.)

So, we’re only left with the startups–the scrappers on the sidelines–to get us there. And I think NASA has the responsibility to foster their growth. These companies can move with the speed and agility that NASA once had, but probably can’t regain. And if we want to be successful in space as a nation and a species, these visionaries deserve all the help we can give them.


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