Currently in America, it is very fashionable to speak negatively of the private sector. The conventional wisdom proclaims that all corporations are rooted in greed and are run by selfish individuals. Private sector opponents argue that profits are evil and penalize hard working Americans. These individuals also state that no matter the form, capitalism ultimately ends in discrimination and unfairness.
If you subscribe to these views, you should probably stop reading right now. In all likelihood, I’m going to say something might make you uncomfortable, or possibly even cause you emotional distress.
(Pause before continuing…3…2…1…)
Still reading? Well, OK. You’ve been warned.
While in graduate school, I took a course that covered (as part of its objectives) the different facets of growing the space industry. Launch vehicle design, satellite communications, and yes, even missions to Mars were all considered crucial to a sustainable space program. While we discussed a number of options, they all had one glaring similarity – every approach depended on significant government funding, either through the military or NASA.
The professor asked us to put together a presentation on how we would structure a sustainable space program. By and large, each class member dutifully regurgitated the party line. When my turn came, like an idiot, I said what I actually believed. I forget the exact words, but it went something like this…
The key to creating a sustainable space program is to drive down the cost of space flight. Since government-funded enterprises possess no inherent mechanism to reduce costs, a sustainable space program must develop organically in the private sector. Only the private sector contains the negative cost drivers needed to make space flight affordable for all.
Needless to say, my talk suffered the same fate as the comet Shoemaker-Levy – torn apart and swallowed by a massive gravitational force. As I drowned my sorrows at the Posse later that evening, I couldn’t get 7 of 9’s voice out of my head, “Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.”
Never one to believe that I could be wrong, I’ve watched the growth of the private space industry with keen interest. As the Shuttle program was winding down, entrepreneurs (funded by Silicon Valley profits) began exploring the opportunities created as NASA pulled back. Scaled Composites and SpaceX are perhaps the most successful of those efforts, each successfully developing launch vehicle technology as part of a for-profit enterprise.
The Google Lunar X Prize was created in 2007 specifically for the purpose of inspiring private investment in space technology. The competition offers $20 million to the first privately funded team to land a robot on the Moon that successfully travels 500 meters and transmits back high-definition images and video. Of the 31 original participants, sixteen remain in the competition, and two have secured a launch contract for next year.
Moon Express is one of those teams scheduled to launch next year. Given all the technical complexity involved with sending a robot to the moon, this past week Moon Express perhaps overcame one of its most difficult challenges. The FAA appears ready to provide regulatory approval for the world’s first private space mission to go beyond Earth’s orbit.
(If you though the regulations for drones were bad, I can’t even imagine the amount of red tape involved with a Moon mission.)
Moon Express is scheduled to launch in the second half of 2017. If successful, this mission will provide another example of what private enterprise can and will accomplish. It’s still too early to say that private investment will save the space industry, but at least it’s a nudge in the right direction.