The pros and cons of commercializing space travel
Private space travel is either too expensive or it's the ultimate capitalist destination.
Mon, Mar 08, 2010 at 10:56 AM
FINAL FRONTIER: The space shuttle in orbit. (Photo: NASA)
President Obama’s budget request to NASA for 2011 has called for the cancellation of the Constellation project, a five-year, $9 billion effort to build a new Orion spacecraft and Ares rockets. Instead, hopes are that the private sector can help finance space travel. Recently, the Wall Street Journal presented two opposing views on the commercialization of our world’s truly final frontier.
Taylor Dinerman is a member of the board of advisers of Space Energy, a company working on space-solar-power concepts, and a regular columnist for thespacereview.com. As he explained in his “con” article to the WSJ, the private sector is not up for the job. He thinks Obama’s proposal to spend $6 billion over the next five years in conjunction with the private sector will never take off. Primarily, Dinerman believes the government’s bogged-down bureaucracy will hinder any collaboration. Obtaining proper insurance is also an obstacle on the road to space.
Further, Dinerman points out that private efforts into space have failed again and again. He refers to dozens of private start-ups that never got off the ground, let alone into space. Dinerman points to Lockheed Martin's X-33 design, which was supposed to replace the space shuttle in 1996. The design never succeeded and ultimately cost the government $912 million and Lockheed Martin $357 million. Amazon.com Chief Executive Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin set up the DC-X program in the early 1990s. Its suborbital test vehicle was initially successful but was destroyed in a landing accident. Dinerman claims, “The Clinton administration saw the DC-X as a Reagan/Bush legacy program, and was happy to cancel it after the accident.”
Peter Diamandis is chief executive of the X Prize Foundation, a nonprofit that conducts incentivized competitions; CEO of Zero Gravity, which offers weightless flights; and chairman of the Rocket Racing League, a gaming company. As Diamandis writes in the pro-private space flight article, President’s Obama’s plan for NASA and private company collaboration “lays the foundation for the future Google, Cisco and Apple of space to be born, drive job creation and open the cosmos for the rest of us.”
His reasoning behind a privatized space is simple. With a younger generation coming up that is steeped in a Star Trek idealization of space, a “let’s get it done” mentality is emerging. Diamandis thinks investors will be fueled by a private passion to explore space. And then there are the fiscal opportunities. He points out that asteroids could be mined for precious minerals. (The premise of Avatar, anyone?)
Diamandis refers to one type of asteroid, an S-type. This object is composed of iron, magnesium silicates and metals such as cobalt and platinum. How much is it worth? An average half-kilometer S-type asteroid could pay more than $20 trillion. Diamandis also points out that the cost of launching people into space is roughly $4 billion, while this can be greatly reduced if placed in the private sector.
Will we eventually see Google, Walmart and Apple logos on the side of the space shuttle? Maybe, or maybe not. But if sacrificing aesthetics and taste is the final price of keeping humanity’s dreams of space flight alive, many seem willing to pay it.
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