Free the High Frontier

Is there a way to seize victory from the tragedy of Columbia?
I am not aware of anyone outside of NASA (and perhaps not within it), who believes that the shuttle fleet represents the safest, most cost-effective method for moving human beings and cargo to orbit possible with today’s technology. The same, I think, can be fairly said of the entire human spaceflight program, most notably including the International Space Station.
At the same time, private industry appears bursting with ideas for both how to move mass to orbit, and what to do with it once there. Space elevators, once abject speculation, are now moving ever closer to reality. Companies like Bigelow Aerospace bet their futures on space tourism. And meanwhile, on the unmanned side, TransOrbital marches forward with plans for a commercial lunar mission.
Contrast this with NASA, which appears mired in the 1970s. There are exceptions, to be fair, but the overall picture is not an inspiring one. And if you can’t make the exploration of space inspiring, well, there’s just no helping you.
And so, it seems to me that we are at a historic moment of decision. More of the same seems a recipe for failure and mediocrity. And who better than a Republican President to call for a complete re-examination of how we view space exploration, and for a loosening of the stranglehold that NASA has held on the high frontier for so many years?
NASA will have a role in the future of space, to be sure. But it need not be the near-monopoly it possesses today. And President Bush could be the leader to make the case that the creative power of private enterprise is exactly what is needed to give this nation a space program that is faster, cheaper and safer.
Let me be clear: I speak with only the most casual knowledge of the space program. But I would welcome further thoughts from those with greater expertise than I. (Glenn, Rand, and Dale would be great folks to start with, of course — and I recognize this is a subject they each have already addressed at various times.)
The mass media is already swarming over the wreckage of Columbia — both physical and metaphorical — searching for answers, and for villians. They are looking backward. Someone must put forward a positive vision of how we can move past this tragic loss, and into the future.
Bloggers must be realistic about our impact on the world, which, in general, is minimal. But the past year has shown that, when an issue has resonance; when a cause is just and the moment is right, the weblogging world can supply the initial pebbles that ripple outward to become a media tidal wave.
And so, while I don’t claim to know the answer with certainty, I will pose the question: is this such a moment? Is it time to ‘flood the zone’ with the idea of opening up the high frontier to private enterprise?
Thanks to the Samizdatistas for many of the links above.