Friday, June 25, 2004

NASA: so long, and thanks for all the fish.

On June 21st, Mike Melvill piloted a hybrid rocket/plane funded by private investment (principally Paul Allen, Burt Rutan et al) to the edge of space, for a mere $20,000,000. Mere? That seem rather expensive for a plane, some might say. But remember, people buy boats that cost this much.

One of the problems with government run institutions is that they are, by their very nature, self-preserving, siloed, risk-adverse, and subject to the whim of politics. Someone may ask NASA what is the point of Cassini, or a stupid ‘Space-shuttle’, which is a godawful way of delivering satellites to orbit. Or a bureaucrat may cancel ‘Blue Atlas’ in the UK because they really aren’t certain what to do with it. But no one can stop the free market once it has decided something is feasible.

A friend of mine has asked me in essence why any private citizen needs to make gobs of cash from a private business venture. My answer to him is very simple: in almost every case, a private citizen will find more productive uses for capital than any government body. In one case, it was to build a silly, pointless hybrid rocket-plane.

Economy of scale is well understood, and has reams of verifiable evidence. It quite clearly demonstrates that once something is proven profitable, competition and efficiency will reduce costs rapidly. What will we do with Space Ship One? Maybe nothing. That doesn’t matter. Because once you show the free market something is feasible, the desire of profit will be the engine driving things. And, while a Sr. NASA bureaucrat may be able to point out that NASA has understood the principals behind this aircraft for years - alolowing him to dismiss the entire veture as pointless on NPR, NASA never did anything with it. NASA had no need to do so. In fact, there was probably significant institutional gestalt and resistance to upsetting the apple cart by pursuing such a risky gamble.

Maybe Space Ship One will never lead anywhere. But what about Space Ship 2? Or some other hair-brained idea that someone will try – because now we know we, as individuals, can do this?

To paraphrase Jerry Pournelle; once you get into Low Earth Orbit, you aren’t half way to the Moon, you are half way to everywhere. 4 days ago, a group of private investors demonstrated that LEO is not all that far away, and not all-that expensive.

On June 21st, 2004, NASA died – and the space age finally began.


Post a Comment

<< Home