Industry and NASA’s Future Vision

Can private industry really replace the government’s most mystical agency? Washington Monthly magazine tackles the question this month, in a story that illuminates the divide within NASA about its future vision. It’s especially timely given the news last week that NASA canned Jeff Hanley, a rogue administrator who defied the White House and told workers to keep the Constellation program going.

As the Obama administration prepares for a congressional fight over NASA’s future, editor Charles Holmans wonders whether free enterprise — the market kind, not the space kind — could be the savior of the space program.

The recession is a unique problem for the hallowed agency. Its current near-Earth orbit missions are expensive, but so is planning for an uncertain future. In the current economic climate, it’s got to be one or the other.

The Obama administration aims to focus NASA on deep-space research and science missions, and remove the emphasis on sending humans to space. The administration hopes private enterprise can fill that void.

Holmans says it can be done, so long as businesses can figure out how to make rockets and space cargo trips profitable.

His proof of concept? The Kelly Air Mail program of the 1920s. Congress allowed commercial airlines to bid on U.S. Postal Service delivery contracts, which in turn let airlines to expand their routes. Demand for cargo increased, flights got cheaper, and as the public realized air travel was safe, passenger traffic grew.

It’s worth pointing out something Holmans doesn’t — the other result of the air mail act was the pioneering spirit it engendered. Charles Lindbergh, the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic, gained the experience and confidence he needed to fly alone on instruments as an air mail pilot between Chicago and St. Louis.

Private space entrepeneurs like Richard Branson and Elon Musk are of a similar mold. There’s no reason private enterprise can’t inspire us, too.

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