As NASA scientists struggle with an image problem, swashbuckling entrepreneurs are selling space as the ultimate free market. Is it fool's gold?
In the 1998 action extravaganza Armageddon, an asteroid the size of Texas is barreling toward Earth and the suits at NASA are scrambling for a fix.
'For 30 years they questioned the need for NASA,' drawls Billy Bob Thornton as the space agency's tough-talking administrator in a situation-room pep talk. 'Today, we're going to give them the answer.'
As those who sat through the blockbuster know-and the movie's $553.7 million worldwide gross suggests there were many of us-the venerable NASA comes up short. The planet's only hope, it turns out, is to plant a nuclear warhead deep within the asteroid, and the only folks who can do that are a crew of oilmen led by a roughneck entrepreneur. Deemed ludicrous eight years ago, certain aspects of the film's plot-which is decidedly pro-business macho, anti-egghead science-don't seem as preposterous today. In a collection of stories in Forbes earlier this year, a new breed of entrepreneurs laying the groundwork for commercial space flight were dubbed 'Space Cowboys.' One of the magazine's commentators suggested that if these guys were in charge of the country's space program, we'd probably be on Mars by now.
It's not a particularly risqu? assessment, given NASA's recent history of expensive and sometimes tragic failures. Some 50 years after Sputnik launched us into the Space Age, the space shuttle evokes little more than a sigh of relief when it returns safely. President Bush's 2004 announcement that he was sending us back to the moon and then to Mars rang hollow-a president facing a quagmire overseas making a desperate play for his Kennedy moment. But is space as a public endeavor so far gone that the only hope of realizing our decades-old dreams is to fling open the gates to a cosmic Wild West?
Space has been open for business for decades, with satellite-dependent industries, such as communications and global positioning systems, pulling in billions. During the Reagan era, even NASA's charter, which initially highlighted the pursuit of knowledge and national prestige, was rewritten to include the mandate to 'seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space.'
The satellite market has since plateaued. Today's space enthusiasts say the new path to profit is tourism that will truly be out of this world. And the media have chimed in with breathless stories about 'the final frontier' which, roughly translated, means 'free market.'
The buzz started in 2001, when a company called Space Adventures negotiated a spot for millionaire Dennis Tito aboard a Russian rocket heading to the International Space Station. The $20 million vacation caused an uproar at NASA, which blocked Tito from training at the Johnson Space Center. Greg Klerkx, author of Lost in Space: The Fall of NASA and the Dream of a New Space Age (Pantheon, 2004), describes the incident as just one more protectionist misstep on the part of the agency. Elite NASA types may have considered Tito a cosmic carpetbagger, but the public identified with a man who was opening up space to the rest of us.
Three years later the private space race kicked off when headlines celebrated the winners of the $10 million X Prize, a contest created to jump-start commercial space flight. In October 2004, SpaceShipOne, a project bankrolled by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, won for designing the first privately funded spacecraft to cross the 62-mile threshold into space twice in two weeks.
Virgin Atlantic's daredevil CEO Richard Branson quickly signed on SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan to build a fleet that will ferry customers paying $200,000 a pop to suborbit, where passengers will experience weightlessness, by the end of the decade.
Elon Musk of PayPal fame is working on sending spacecraft into orbit through his company Space Exploration Technologies (called SpaceX). He's framed his ambitions as a first step toward ensuring a spacefaring civilization that could survive Earth's demise. Another siliconaire, Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos, has built buzz for his Blue Origin venture-which aims to launch tourists into suborbital bliss from the company's West Texas spaceport-mainly by being secretive about it. Several states are gearing up to cash in on the new industry by allocating tax dollars to build their own spaceports. And Budget Suites of America CEO Robert Bigelow is working on lodging. He successfully launched a one-third-scale model of his inflatable hotel, Genesis 1, in July. (Ironically, the project was initiated at NASA, which abandoned it in 2000 and then sold Bigelow development rights.)
The possibilities to capitalize don't end there-there's lunar and asteroid mining, advertising, solar power collection, and more. After Las Vegas played host this summer to the first of two conferences highlighting space's commercial prospects, a city newspaper's editorial page crooned: 'When flexibility and innovation are called for, nothing has ever succeeded like the profit-seeking free market.'
Despite all the dreams the free market seems set to fulfill, however, the reliance on a capitalist mentality carries familiar pitfalls. In Space: The Fragile Frontier (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 2006), author and space technology consultant Mark Williamson warns that our commercial endeavors are already wreaking environmental havoc. Littered with human-made space junk, Earth's orbit could prove dangerous not only to government endeavors, such as the space shuttle and International Space Station, but also to commercial satellites. With more and more entities laying claims to space, Williamson warns that development and exploration guidelines must be laid down 'before the 'final frontier' becomes a lawless, selfish, and untamed frontier.'
What's more, while rocketeers like Branson and Musk promise the moon, a little skepticism would go a long way toward determining whether the time has really come to trade the starts and spurts of science for the swashbuckling mentality of the marketplace.
'There has been a lot of hype,' says Roger Launius, chairman of the Space History Division at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and former NASA chief historian. Though he tips his hat to Rutan's SpaceShipOne (which hangs in his museum), he notes that NASA was flying similar Mach 3 aircraft at higher speeds more than 40 years ago. On suborbital flights like those being sold by Branson, passengers can float weightless for a few minutes and quickly snap a shot of the curve of Earth before heading for safe ground. Breaking through to what most of us consider space-the dark expanse John Glenn reached in 1962-is far more demanding and risky.
That so much attention has been lavished on an industry whose accomplishments lag decades behind NASA's is testament to the savvy marketing of outfits courting capital and public opinion. Commercialization has been framed as populism, as the answer to an innovation-stifling bureaucracy, and several millionaires stand to profit. These outfits have not had to face the tough scrutiny that comes with inevitable failure, however, or the soul searching triggered by the loss of human resources-traumas that have left NASA averse to risk. The public mourned the astronauts lost in the Challenger and Columbia accidents as people who died for their country and for science. How will we regard the deaths of adventurers risking life and limb for a $200,000 view?
The space program was never a pure pursuit of knowledge, of course: Apollo was largely a warning shot in the Cold War. But the impact of the feat managed to transcend politics. It inspired wonder and, as it evoked the promise of worlds beyond our own, encouraged people to envision new possibilities. Those intangibles, unlikely to fit into a business plan, are at risk if exploration is put at the mercy of pure profit.