Keith Cowing of NASAWatch.com, commenting on an article about the 50th anniversary of the first flight to land at the South Pole, asks a good question:
Half a century ago we did such things, and Antarctic exploration moved from visits to habitation. We have been there ever since. Not so on the Moon. If/when America returns according to the VSE’s schedule, it will have been half a century – of absence. Will we return to stay? Given the enormous costs that Mike Griffin’s plans call for, I am not sure we can afford it.
And that, boys and girls, is the reason why I think the current architecture is fundamentally flawed. Even if it worked flawlessly, and without any cost overruns, it would be way too expensive to actually do anything truly meaningful in the long run. While being a libertarian sort of guy, I’d rather see NASA (and most of the rest of the current federal agencies) go the way of the dodo, if they insist on living, I wish they were providing a better return on coerced investment. The NACA approach, which focused more on industry promotion, developing the technologies and doing the research to enable commercial application, and such things instead of trying to operate their own airlines would’ve been a lot better than the path NASA has taken since it’s foundation.
NASA may be lousy at doing commercially effective R&D, but they are far worse when they try acting like an airline. If NASA deserves to exist at all, they should be spending most of their money on trying to help “encouraging and facilitating a growing and entrepreneurial U.S. commercial space sector,” not trying to fund and run their next Amtrak in the Sky. People like to point at how much X-33, SLI, NASP, and other such programs have wasted, but what they seem to be missing is that while these were “R&D” programs, they were “R&D” programs trying to lead to another NASA operated space transportation system. Which is basically what the money for CEV, Ares I, and Ares V are. Sure, Ares I and Ares V aren’t trying to break new technological ground, but they are trying once again to establish the national space exploration transportation system. The fundamental flaw in all of those failed research programs wasn’t so much that they were trying new technology, and new technology is bad. It’s that they were trying to make yet another NASA owned and operated transportation system. Ares I and Ares V aren’t so much a bold break with past mistakes as they are an unimaginative repeat of the same.
So long as NASA insists on spending the majority of its yearly billions on developing, owning, and operating its own spacelines, no progress is really going to be made by them towards opening up space for the rest of us. 14 years from now, we may not be *just* going around in circles in LEO, but being stuck sending only a handful of government employees per year into space isn’t that exciting for me, regardless of if their paths are circular, elliptical, or a figure-eight.
Real space development is, as it always truly has been, dependent upon the space entrepreneurs to lead the way. It’s just a pity at a time when so many good space ideas are languishing due to scarce investment to see tens of billions of coerced money going down the same dead-end ratholes.