The most important news story of this fall, ultimately more important than the re-election of the president, was the awarding of the X Prize to Burt Rutan for his SpaceShipOne flights. For it shows that private enterprise is both willing and able to enter space. At a profit.
The Space Age has launched into a new era, the Industrial Space Age. So it's time to rethink NASA.
Now, recently, NASA had big news, too. Its X-43A scramjet broke the world speed record for an atmosphere-burning aircraft, going nearly ten times the speed of sound. It achieved not only speed, but glided down to the earth's surface for a soft landing. An impressive feat, and one that news accounts proclaimed would usher in a new age of space travel.
But after the soft landing in the ocean, NASA abandoned its multi-million dollar plane to sink as junk. Contrast this with SpaceShipOne, which cost a tenth of NASA's effort and has shot up into space several times and come back down for re-use.
This is no small contrast. NASA is still mired in the old "throw money away" method of space travel. Of course, the new plane is still in its early stages, and was controlled remotely, not manned. But the idea of testing such expensive equipment and throwing it away seems wasteful, as if millions of dollars that went into it were nothing, and the jet itself, after the test, was of no more value than a model airplane.
Burt Rutan, on the other hand, demonstrates the real savvy of the new age: safety, reusability, economy. Rutan's spacecraft, not NASA's, presages the future.
The argument for a heavily funded space agency made some sense before private enterprise got interested. Tax money and government direction jump-started the space age, before private enterprise did, or could have. But things are different now.
There is no reason that private enterprise could not soon take over the job of placing and even fixing commercial satellites in orbit. Since 1984, the Office of Commercial Space Transportation ? a division not of NASA, but of the FAA ? has licensed over 150 private flights, including those of SpaceShipOne. Indeed, NASA's Shuttle program may have done more to retard the industrialization of space in the past twenty years than anything else, simply by distracting attention and efforts away from better technology.