Not Your Father's Space Program

Who needs NASA when private enterprise is turning the stuff of science fiction into reality?

International Space Development Conference

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 31, 2008: Greg Olson and Anousheh Ansari speak at this year's International Space Development Conference. (Photo by Nancy Ostertag/NSS)

NASA isn't going anywhere very fast these days, but people in the space enthusiast community aren't as gloomy as you might expect. In fact, they seem more cheerful than I've seen them for years. The reason is that talk about "the space program" (singular) is out of date. Now there are numerous space programs, and while NASA's isn't doing especially well, others seem to be flourishing.

The so-called "space movement" emerged only after NASA's heyday had passed. During the 1960s, when impressive new accomplishments came one after another, those who favored human settlement of outer space were happy just to cheer NASA on. It was only when NASA began to lose momentum following the Apollo program that worried space supporters coalesced into a movement under the umbrella of two organizations: the establishmentarian National Space Institute, founded by Wernher von Braun and Hugh Downs, and the space-hippieish L5 Society, founded by fans of Princeton physicist Gerard K. O'Neill's plan for orbital space colonies. The two groups merged in the 1980s to form the National Space Society, and they've been putting on an annual conference, the International Space Development Conference, for 27 years.

I attended a lot of those conferences back when they were geekfests with an ambience that was half Star Trek convention, half revival meeting. They were fun, and the discussions were often informative, but participants were for the most part on the outside looking in. There was a lot of political discussion, aimed mostly at getting NASA to do the right thing, and at getting Congress to fund NASA to do the right thing, but not a lot of other action.

When my daughter was born in 1995, I quit going for over a decade. I wasn't uninterested, just busy. Recently, though, I attended two conventions—in 2007 and 2008—and discovered that things are different today. From geekfests (not that there's anything wrong with that), the conferences have evolved into something more like the meeting of a professional or trade association. The crowd is better dressed, and often working in the field: one woman I remembered from years back as an activist with Students for the Exploration and Development of Space is now a professor of astronautics at MIT; another former student space activist now coordinates space matters for Google. And truly rich private sector enthusiasts are as conspicuous by their presence now as they were by their absence a decade or two ago.

The main source of excitement at this year's conference was space tourism—folks in the industry prefer the term "personal spaceflight"—involving many companies, from the well-known (Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic) to the sort-of-known (Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin) to the comparatively obscure (XCOR Aerospace). Just this week it was announced that Google co-founder Sergey Brin plans to be a space tourist on a flight to the international space station in 2011. The space tourism business has, according to the results of a study presented at the conference, attracted over 1.2 billion dollars in investment, and grown its revenues from $175 million in 2006 to $268 million in 2007. That's peanuts compared to what NASA is spending on the Space Station or its Constellation project aimed at returning to the Moon, but it's real money and, unlike NASA's budget, it's growing.

Hotel magnate Robert Bigelow is even looking at building his own space station. A (revenue-generating) prototype recently completed its 10,000th orbit around the Earth, and Bigelow has put up $500 million toward making his dream a reality. He'll likely find customers. Indeed, the ISDC featured two wealthy individuals, Greg Olson and Anousheh Ansari, who each ponied up 20 million dollars for a Russian flight to the International Space Station, and both expressed their willingness to pay $100 million for a trip to the Moon if such were available. (Though Olson quipped, "I'd have to sell another company first.")

The Moon is the other main source of excitement. There are now 14 different teams competing for the Google Lunar X-Prize, which will pay $30 million to the first team to send a robot lander/rover to the Moon. Most of them see the prize as a way to jumpstart a longer-term lunar business, not simply as a reward for a one-off effort. Like Virgin Galactic, which followed up on Burt Rutan's win in the original X-Prize competition by creating a space tourism business, it's likely that someone will capitalize on successful private lunar efforts in a more long-term fashion as well.

There's little doubt that most of these ventures will crash and burn, metaphorically if not literally (since this really is rocket science). But because the new ferment in commercial space activity means that NASA isn't the only game in town, it doesn't matter if dozens of space companies fail—so long as some succeed. In this regard, it's an environment more like aviation or automobiles in the 1920s, or computers in the 1970s and 1980s, than like space in the "Right Stuff" era of the 1960s. Back then there was only one player, and it had to succeed or all the effort would have been wasted. In fact, beyond the big names there are now lots of secondary suppliers, who provide components and software to a variety of commercial competitors—a real industrial infrastructure, in other words. It's not a do-the-whole-thing-yourself industry any more.

This trend may also explain the reduced interest in politics that I observed. In previous decades, space supporters were feverishly focused on NASA budgets and electoral maneuverings. Even David Osborne's 1985 cover story for The Atlantic on private enterprise in space focused largely on what NASA would do and what Congress would fund. This year, those concerns took a back seat. The convention did feature a well-attended panel on elections, and I hung out in the bar with an impromptu meetup of Obama supporters (their enthusiasm for Obama was unrelated to his views on space, which according to a campaign representative are currently "under review"), but these days no one is looking to the next President to play John F. Kennedy. They'll be happy if the Federal government just leaves space alone.

That's a sign of maturity, too. JFK's decision to go to the moon was a tremendous case of wish-fulfillment for space enthusiasts—instead of a slow growth into outer space, we got a massive commitment of federal resources to get us to the Moon faster than anyone had thought possible. Given that kind of boost, it's not surprising that many spent decades trying to re-enact that kind of success. The JFK moment, however, hasn't come around again, and isn't likely to repeat itself any time soon. And as is often the case when a fantasy becomes reality, the aftermath turned out to be a bit of a letdown; the massive commitment of resources brought about by the political excitement dwindled as soon as that political excitement inevitably disappeared. Politics and command-and-control systems got us to the moon in a decade, but they proved powerless to keep us there. Achieving a space-faring civilization incrementally though profit-making enterprise may take longer, but such an approach doesn't depend on the whims of Presidents, or on right guesses by NASA. It's an approach that takes patience—a quality that has arrived, as it often does, through a combination of time and disappointment.

Ironically, today's state of affairs is looking like what a lot of classic—that is, pre-Apollo—science fiction predicted: a slow, steady growth of commercial endeavors in space, with ordinary citizens reaching the moon in the early twenty-first century via the efforts of a wealthy industrialist. Space supporters, at any rate, will be happy to see this happen ... especially if they have a shot at buying tickets themselves. And they just might.