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.

It’s easier to buy something than to sell it

I just had a garage sale for the first time, and it was a somewhat shocking experience. I’m moving from Colorado to St. Louis, and my husband and I decided to upgrade some of our furniture, which means leaving our old, pre-wedding stuff behind. We’d rather make a few bucks on it than just give it all away, so we decided to host a garage sale with some friends who are moving to London and also need to ditch their things.

We don’t exactly frequent garage sales, so we had no idea what would be a fair price for something like a coffee table, a set of golf clubs or an old telescope. We basically settled on a few bucks for everything and figured people might bargain for a few bucks off. But it was far worse than I expected. Americans, I decided, are vultures.

By 7:15 a.m., an elderly man showed up and offered me $5 for my husband’s old PlayStation 2 and a stack of games, hoping his iPod-owning granddaughter would like it. We’d asked $15 for the lot, which I thought was more than fair, but apparently this guy thought that was a ripoff. Tired and anxious, I accepted his $5 and watched him walk to his car with a pile of what probably would have earned us five times that amount at a video game store.

An hour later, we sold our swamp cooler — for which we’d paid $100 a year ago — for $15, bargained down from $25. I started getting uncomfortable.

People showed up and rummaged through my old jewelry, rejecting most items and occasionally asking to pay 50 cents for something they did like. A father and son came by asking for tennis racquets. We hadn’t thought about selling ours, but my husband, eager to have less to pack, offered them both for $4.

Later, a woman said she liked my dish set, but was bummed it was green instead of blue, and asked if I had a blue set she could buy. It’s a garage sale, lady, I thought. This is all I have.

That last line became somewhat of a mental refrain throughout the day, as people placed so little value on things that, to me, once had plenty. This is all I have, and I am practically giving it away, yet you want to pay even less, you heartless strangers!

To me, my white-ash wood kitchen table is worth years of memories; I remember many Thanksgivings and Christmases shared around its veneer-covered surface. But to you, obnoxious shirtless college guy, it is worth just $100, with chairs (I got him to pay $120).

I know it’s shallow to feel attached to material things — they aren’t worth much, a fact laid out in stark relief at my sale. But still … they are valuable.

I have a friend who goes to garage sales and thrift shops to buy old picture frames, most of which still have family photos in them. She hangs them throughout the house as if she knows the people in them — she calls them her Faux Family, and even gives them names, like Flo Faux or Mo Faux. She likes them because they’re quirky. But I find it touching — these old pictures, things formerly valued and beloved, are able to find a new home. I don’t think the woman who bought my sailboat painting for $1.50 will feel that kind of special connection.

Next time, I think we’ll skip the scavenger-baiting sale and bring our stuff to the ARC. That way, our things will provide work for someone who needs a job, and someone will probably pay more for it in the store than they would on my front lawn. And I won’t have to bargain away my things for pennies on the dollar.

Piney Mud

One might expect tourist crowds in a national park to be somewhat smaller on a Thursday mid-afternoon. But apparently the people come out in droves for Rocky Mountain National Park regardless of the day.

Many are friendly trail users who offer a “Hello, how you doing?” as they let you pass or overtake you on a steep stretch. Most are there for the same reasons I come — the smell of pines, the physical challenge, a photo opportunity, a quiet visit with nature. But there are always a few tourists.

They wear sneakers and jeans and Michigan sweatshirts, rarely prepared and often oblivious, the tell-tale signs of RV road warriors. They bring grapes for their kids, who inevitably drop them on the trail to mingle with the piney mud. The green orbs never last long thanks to the booming population of chipmunks, who are about as timid as the park’s elk herd (which means not much at all). Some of the tourists let their kids throw snow at each other, which means they also throw it at passing hikers trying to escape the crowd. We were pelted today by a 6-year-old aiming for his mom, who seemed not to notice.

About a mile or so in, the tourists usually turn back; they reach the less-worn sections of trail and decide today is not a day for bouldering, especially when you’re wearing Crocs. But there remain a few determined visitors.

On the way down from Mills Lake (which we didn’t quite reach, thanks to a washed-out bridge), around 1 p.m. amid burgeoning thunderheads, we ran into a family with a 20-something daughter who asked how far it was to the lake. It was at least another mile up from that point, and we tried to discourage their ascent based on the bridge, which meant they wouldn’t reach the glacial lake anyway. I should have told them explicitly to turn back — I should have said, it’s 1 p.m. on a mountain in Colorado in late May, and you ought to be going down, not up. But they wouldn’t have listened, which I could tell from the determined look on the parents’ faces. At least they had jackets; I hope they turned around when the rain started in earnest.

Oh well. Maybe we’ll try our luck on a Wednesday next time.