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NASA Innovation is Gov Exception that Proves Rule

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

A warm “welcome home!” to the crew of the Space Shuttle Endeavour, who landed early Wednesday morning at the Kennedy Space Center.  Endeavor’s final odometer reading is 122,883,151 miles after 25 trips to space and back.  The orbiter has one last trip planned; transportation to Los Angeles for permanent display at the California Science Center.

The Space Shuttle Atlantis is now parked at Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, being readied for the final flight of the fleet, scheduled for launch on July 8.

America’s manned space flight program has been one of the real success stories for the productive use of government.  A capability first developed for exploration became a key component for commercial space missions.  The highly trained astronaut workforce has provided satellite assemblies, lab experiments, equipment maintenance and repairs in low-earth orbit. 

One of the most productive missions in manned space flight history took place in November of 1984.  After completing their original mission of deploying two satellites, the crew of the Space Shuttle Discovery caught up with two other satellites whose malfunctioning kick motors had failed to achieve their proper orbits.  Both satellites, the Boeing-built PALAPA and a Hughes-built Westar, were retrieved and returned safely to Earth in the shuttle’s payload bay.  I was an engineer for Hughes at the time and enjoyed the rare opportunity of examining both of these historically retrieved satellites shortly after their arrival in California for refurbishing.

Once the Space Shuttle Atlantis returns from its final mission next month, the U.S. will put on hold its manned space flight program.  It will be at least five years before the Orion “crew vehicle” and its intended launch vehicle, the Space Launch System, are ready to return astronauts to space. 

While unmanned launches will continue, many aerospace professionals are lamenting the absence of an American program for transporting humans into space.  But I see a positive here.  The commercial interests for a human presence in space will create the kind of market need that can only be met by the kind of extraordinary innovation that Americans are famous for.  I predict that the baton will naturally be passed from the government-operated NASA to private firms who will find resourceful ways to meet the demand.

The Orion Multi-purpose Crew Vehicle barely survived recent budget cuts as the current administration moves its priorities from private innovation to domestic imperialism (see my April 17 article  But Orion is already being developed by private industry, under contract to NASA.  And that natural response by American entrepreneurs to meet a demand with cost-effective ingenuity will increase as the government’s attentiveness to that market declines.

Perhaps the sweetest example of a successful transition from government-sponsored invention to commercial operation is the Internet.  The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) launched the Internet in the same year that Neil Armstrong set his first foot on the Moon.  While governments do maintain a regulatory role, their involvement is miniscule compared to the massively diverse commercial operation of the World Wide Web.

I would assert that the lion’s share of government-funded innovation is ill-advised and fruitless.  But occasionally, we come together as a nation to invest in worthy pursuits that provide a very beneficial return.  What began as an ideological duel between communism and capitalism, Sputnik versus Apollo, has resulted in a highly productive manned space flight program.

So, should we fund NASA to send people to Mars?  Should we explore the science of matter, space and time at the Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory?  How about “the synthesis, analysis, and engineering of rare-earth metals” at Ames Laboratory?  

These investments may be too risky or too colossal for private industry to initiate.  And answering some of the big questions, like how the universe began, will have no monetary return.

America, please give us some wise leadership for a change.  We need to replace quotes like, “I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody” with quotes like, “Yet the vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first. In short, our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world's leading space-faring nation.”

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