NASA is not what it used to be. In fact, it is not even close to what it was during the Apollo era, and there even exists a slightly derogatory term to describe the NASA of today- Old Space. The term refers to the fact that the Agency is overly cautious, bullied by Congress, cash-strapped, but more importantly, still hung up on the successes of the Apollo years, no matter how great those successes had been.
NASA is also used to dealing only with the traditional giants in the space industry- Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, Grumman, and Northrop. Dealing with competition from upstart entrepreneurs presents a whole new ball game, and that is precisely why space exploration needs the upbeat, vibrant, and commerce-oriented inputs of entrepreneurs that have progressed beyond the PowerPoint stages of space exploration.
These entrepreneurs can say to NASA “Here are our rockets. Here are our records of successful launches. Here is our commitment to safety and reliability, and given the opportunity, we can put men on other worlds- just like you did. In short, here is why you need us, the entrepreneurs.”
Entrepreneurs have the money
It is no secret that NASA is utterly dependent on Congress for its funding, but Congress has other priorities than chasing down planets around other stars, with the result that NASA is very often, and some would say, perennially underfunded. Moreover, the lion’s share of NASA’s budget allocations go toward salaries and other overheads that space entrepreneurs don’t have.
NASA received an allocation of $17.5 billion for 2015, with which it has to do EVERYTHING, which is a problem the entrepreneurs don’t have. Although their budgets are much more modest (and often undisclosed), they can focus on specific areas of interest, which costs less, because there are fewer people and less equipment involved.
Many private space ventures are bankrolled by private fortunes, and others are crowd-funded, but wherever the money comes from, less of it is required to achieve results that are comparable to those achieved by NASA on a similar scale. It’s all about the money, and the entrepreneurs have more of it, since they don’t have to beg for it.
While the Apollo program inspired a nation, the entrepreneurs are now inspiring thousands of youngsters to study science, maths, and engineering, since they can see the results of years of slogging through colleges and universities.
The Apollo program was run by the Government, for the Government, and there was no room for private initiative. The entrepreneurs are changing all of that- they are creating opportunities for thousands of university graduates, which can only serve to inspire more students to become scientifically literate and knowledgeable.
Entrepreneurs contribute to the economy
Of course, NASA also contributes to the economy, but only indirectly so by means of paying taxable salaries to thousands of employees, skilled and otherwise. NASA also does not have to show a profit on which it can be taxed; all they have to do is to show that no money was wasted in the previous year.
What comes in the front door in the form of money, goes out the back door in the form of disbursements to contractors, and nothing, or very little gets ploughed back into the organization in the form of research into new technologies.
Entrepreneurs on the other hand, have to make profits to stay in business, and the more profits they make, the more money gets spread around to employees, contractors, and suppliers, all of whom pay taxes on the profits they make as a result of the space entrepreneurs being profitable.
All of the above is a gross oversimplification of the issue, but the fact remains that between them, space entrepreneurs spread more money around than NASA does. Most of the big spends by NASA go to large industrial conglomerates like Boeing, Lockheed-Martin and others, each with thousands of stock holders, few of whom get big enough shares of the profits to be taxed on them in meaningful ways.
Entrepreneurs develop new technologies
It would be grossly unfair to say that NASA does not develop new technologies; it does so and part of the reason why we have learned so much about the Universe during the last 20 years or so is because of new technologies developed by NASA.
However, space entrepreneurs are free to develop, or improve existing technologies to satisfy their own particular needs, like for instance, more cost effective rocketry. The privately funded space company, SpaceX, is currently leading the race to develop fully fully re-usable launch vehicles launch vehicles with their Falcon-9 rocket, which has seen several successful test flights, but also some notable disasters and failures.
In fact, SpaceX is the main supply contractor to the International Space Station with its Dragon spacecraft, the only craft currently able to ferry supplies up, and to bring meaningful amounts of waste back to earth.
Currently, NASA has no flight capability to resupply the ISS, and it is wholly dependent on private enterprise and the Russian Soyuz program to keep the astronauts on the ISS alive, which is perhaps the most compelling reason why NASA, and the space exploration industry in general need space entrepreneurs.
Entrepreneurs are explorers
Private space exploration initiatives don’t always have it their own way; there are many detractors who refer to companies like SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, and others as mere dabblers who will never get beyond earth orbit, but the truth is that NASA has had no recent successes in this area either.
Privately-funded space exploration may be in its infancy, but the fact that it exists at all is eloquent proof that just as mankind’s forebears left Africa to explore the world, so will the initiatives now being explored by space entrepreneurs serve as the foundation for deep space exploration by future generations.
Space is indeed the final frontier, and while Old Space is sometimes quick to point out that what the young upstart space entrepreneurs are now doing has been done decades before, Old Space is slow to mention the fact that it, and no one else had allowed the art of building giant rockets to die out.
They should be thanking the entrepreneurs for trying to revive it, and that is perhaps the most important reason why Old Space needs the space entrepreneurs, if not the most compelling one.
Submitted by Martin Wilson.