FOR SPACE FANS, GOOD NEWS AND BAD NEWS
The rumors that George W. Bush plans to send US astronauts back into space have gathered enough strength to appear in a Washington Post article that cites administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.
I'll put my cards on the table: I want to see human beings travel space, as far from the Earth as our technology, courage, curiosity, and ambition will take us. Inside me, there is still the boy who thrills at images of rocks in rusty sand, under a salmon sky, or photos of human boot impressions in the dust on the floor of a lunar crater. I am proud of my country, and of humanity, that we can do this kind of thing, have done it, and may soon do so again.
On the other hand, I am also now a man who understands the price we pay for government's control of the space program, and I firmly believe that, from here on out, space exploration should be the business of the private sector, neither contorted by political agenda or bureaucracy, nor held back by the fickleness of political will. I worry that Mr. Bush's new embrace of space exploration may actually smother the embryonic civil space flight industry, just at the moment that some serious contenders
seem poised to win the X-Prize.
As much as I want to see us put a base on the moon and go to Mars and elsewhere in the universe, I almost hope that Mr. Bush's initiative falls flat. With the X-Prize and other private-sector efforts, in the face of the vacuum caused by NASA's implosion over the past several decades, "citizens be doing it for themsevles": voluntarily investing money and other resources toward the establishment of a robust commercial space industry that depends upon neither government fiat nor subsidies coerced from the wallets of unwilling taxpayers.
Space flight is difficult and risky. Those who want to assume the risks, and who have the ability to do so, should reap the rewards from (or suffer the consequences of) their commitments and efforts. Although non-participants would not share in the risks, even they would ultimately be rewarded by a successful civil space flight industry, just as people who never invested in an aerospace stock or bought an airline ticket still benefit, for example, by having the option to book an affordable flight to an exotic vacation destination, or a potentially lucrative business gathering halfway around the world -- travel that was often impractical if not unthinkable in the days before airplanes. Or what about holiday gifts that arrived from far-flung friends and relatives via air-express during the past several weeks? Far more people benefit from such things -- simply because they now exist -- than ever voluntarily chose to contribute to the airplane industry in any way.
The consequences of a civil space flight industry could be similar, not to mention a lot more pervasive in the lives of ordinary people than Tang, space food sticks, or memory foam pillows. I'll listen to Mr. Bush's ideas with an open mind. But if his space initiative cannot co-exist with a civil space flight industry, much less stimulate it, then I know which one I'd nominate to toss out the airlock.