Liberating NASA

Let me disclose my biases up front: I did not dream of going into space as a child. I took it for granted. My father was a (genuine) rocket scientist, and I figured that just as airplanes had become commonplace over the course of his life, space travel would become commonplace over the course of mine.

Let me disclose my biases up front: I did not dream of going into space as a child. I took it for granted. My father was a (genuine) rocket scientist, and I figured that just as airplanes had become commonplace over the course of his life, space travel would become commonplace over the course of mine.

People first landed on the Moon while I was a teenager, and I turned to other pursuits – journalism, the Internet, startup companies. But then, decades later, I woke up and discovered that space travel was still reserved for a small corps of astronauts and cosmonauts, and a tiny group of wealthy space tourists – six so far.

The space business was the preserve of a few governments, plus a number of large cost-plus contractors who lived in symbiosis with their government customers. 

Then there was Space Adventures, the private company that arranges the space tourist trips with Roskosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency, for upwards of $35 million a flight. I invested in Space Adventures, and also in XCOR Aerospace, a rocket maker.

As with the Internet, I could see the glimmer of the energy that results  when commercial startups invade a market dominated by large, established organizations. I wanted to know more about space travel (not about startups!) and figured that six months of space training with Roskosmos, organized by Space Adventures, was the best way to get totally immersed.

After I returned, I had the opportunity to join the NASA Advisory Council, as chairman of its Technology and Innovation Committee.

The Council has recently been shaken up, with its membership reduced from 50 to 10 and each member’s role clarified. However,  the Council’s actual power is limited: NASA is told what to do – and is financed to to do it – by the United States Congress. We can only advise on what Congress decrees and funds.

This shakeup reflects a shakeup at NASA itself, under new Administrator Charlie Bolden, appointed by President Barack Obama. And it’s a huge opportunity for NASA as well as for space exploration and science. Obama has proposed a new budget for NASA that directs it to focus on longer-term goals, and adds another $6 billion over the next five years (at a time when almost every other agency faces budget cuts).

Over the past four decades, NASA has matured, which has made it so process-ridden and cautious – so responsible – that it has lost much of its energy and innovativeness. With almost every US election cycle, it endured funding cuts, re-orientations, and the like.

Then NASA had two large and image-damaging space-shuttle accidents – the Challenger disaster of 1986, followed by the disintegration of the Columbia over Texas in 2003.

These catastrophes stripped NASA of its appetite for risk. The astronauts themselves were eager to return to space, but the bureaucrats were unwilling to send them.

This is a persistent challenge for government agencies: they get hammered whenever something goes wrong. People are accustomed to the risks of driving cars or taking planes. But governments are not supposed to kill people.
I’m not suggesting that private companies should be allowed to kill people, but they can take risks (with people who understand the risks they are taking), which governments cannot.

Of course, they are also incentivized not to take risks; any start-up space company that carelessly kills someone will probably also kill itself. But the industry will survive and prosper.

So, what does the new NASA budget do? And how is it relevant to other industries and other governments?
The new budget does two things. First, it acknowledges that the so-called Constellation project, which was focused on returning to the Moon, is behind schedule, over budget, and unambitious.

So the budget cancels Constellation – though many of the specific projects and employees that comprised it will live on. The new budget will apply the freed-up funds and resources towards a still-to-be-defined program aimed at going beyond the Moon to asteroids, so-called “near-Earth objects,” and, eventually, Mars.

Obama did not, however, define the new goals tightly, leaving that up to NASA – a sensible and modest approach, but unfortunately a political mistake.

It is never a good idea to replace something with vagueness. Politicians and lobbyists who care only about this year’s jobs and next year’s votes have jumped all over this lack of a plan.

Their scorn has also extended to the second part of the budget, a program that normally they would have liked: bringing back to the US jobs that currently go to Russians. For the budget proposes contracting with American startups to send astronauts and cargo to low-Earth orbit – mostly to the International Space Station. For the next few years, NASA will be buying those services from RosKosmos and sending astronauts up in Russian Soyuzes. But after that, under the new budget, they will be buying from the likes of start-ups SpaceX and Orbital Sciences (and eventuallly, I hope, XCOR).

Government should focus on long-term, risky research (where the risk is to projects, not to people), and the private sector should focus on delivering services that are already well understood and ready to be handled in a routine way.

The irony of American politics right now is that normally pro-business Republicans are those most hostile to NASA’s new budget – which espouses the values of entrepreneurship and innovativeness that Republicans claim to hold dear.

NASA itself is a typical large organization. Most of its people would welcome a more entrepreneurial environment, but they have been beaten down by years of criticism, constraints, regulations, and arbitrary budget cuts.

As a system, NASA is resistant to change, but inside there are thousands of people yearning to experiment and learn from both successes and failures. They want the liberation of a grand challenge. They want to take risks with technology, not with people.

Look around you. There are lots of organizations like that, waiting to be liberated, their employees yearning to breathe free.

Esther Dyson, chairman of EDventure Holdings, is an active investor in a variety of start-ups around the world.  Her interests include information technology, health care and private aviation and space travel.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.

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