Sunday, November 30, 2003

As a member of the House Science Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics for 15 years, I have witnessed time and again NASA’s over-promising, over-marketing and underestimating costs. Whether it’s the Space Shuttle or Space Station, it’s a pattern. NASA goes for the grandiose, ignoring doable, more affordable alternatives. An Industrial Space Facility, reliant on remote-control robotics and infrequent visits by astronauts, was an alternative for a permanently manned station. This could have been done for a small fraction of the cost of the International Space Station, and we would have almost immediately benefited from space-based science experiments.

America is now at a vital crossroads, struggling with choices, but with no quality vision on which to base those decisions. This mandate for decision has been forced upon us in large measure by the disintegration of the Space Shuttle Columbia. With the current grounding of the Shuttle fleet, America has lost the capability for manned space flight. We simply can’t go on without the consensus of a unifying vision. Great treasure and lives are being expended; the nation must appreciate the great purpose of sending humans into space, or we will cease to do it. NASA has squandered money and lives insisting on mega-projects, and it has jeopardized its greatest asset: the faith of the American people.

Yet, America’s continuous support for a national space program is testimony to our people’s national character, which is tied in so many ways to the conquest of frontiers: the expansion of freedom, hope and prosperity for the common man.

Even now, as despair is evident in our public-sector space program, the commercially-focused space sector is confident and gearing up. Telecommunication and space services (like weather and space imaging and those relating to our Global Positioning System) have already changed our world. Now, space entrepreneurs are emerging to inspire us with their innovation and creativity and their willingness to take the next step up.

Individuals like Burt Rutan, Dennis Tito and Elon Musk are pushing the boundaries, building affordable space hardware and investing where no investor has gone before.They are also changing the rules when it comes to the economics of space travel.If not dragged down by our own space bureaucracy, the new space entrepreneurs will no doubt make major advances toward affordable access to space. Their goals are not so grandiose: taking tourists into space and bringing them home alive. These private-sector endeavors will spawn spinoff technologies that will help our government efforts, especially in defense. There’s a role reversal for you.

And spinoffs notwithstanding, we may also see a foundation laid for ultra-rapid passenger and package delivery service to many points on the globe,aswellasspace tourism and other moneymaking ventures.All this is happening, let us note, when the NASA effort is thrashing around, as its huge programs collapse from their own contradictions.

So, what must be done? Let’s get government out of the way of space entrepreneurs and put in place policies that encourage such private-sector space initiatives. Congress should provide incentives for space investment.MyZero Gravity/Zero Tax proposal should be dusted off and implemented.NASA should agree to use private-sector alternatives in resupplying the Space Station.Government, of course, has more than a passive role to play.Like it or not, the space effort is by its nature tethered to the government.In the short term, we need to finish the work at hand, and that means getting the Space Station’s laboratory working and showing results.Anything else will result in a huge loss of credibility with the American taxpayers and make them ever more skeptical about NASA.

The Clementine mission, brought about by a group of rebels in the space community, discovered evidence of water at lunar poles in 1996.The Lunar Prospector project demonstrated that commercial lunar exploration missions are feasible. With evidence of water on the moon, we can make oxygen to breathe and hydrogen for fuel. The Moon/Earth arena beckons us.Helium-3, a rare isotope found on Earth, is in abundant supply on the Moon.Some believe that this element may in the future provide the basis for a clean-burning fuel if and when fusion reactor technology becomes a reality.

So, let’s quit talking about sending a person to Mars, and look a little closer at what we can do with water on the moon. Let us focus on this vast stretch of the near universe, and make sure we can use it to better the lives of our people and make them safer and more prosperous.

On another front, while we remain mired in indecision and bureaucracy concerning what direction U.S. human space flight should take, the Chinese seem to have a clear understanding of why they are attempting human space flight: to enhance national prestige, technological advances and the promotion of high-tech exports. The success of China’sfirstastronaut launched into orbit in October could signal a fast-track space program that could very well leave us in the dust.

Obviously, America has to get going.The president needs to lead the way with a major vision speech, and what day would be more perfect than December 17 — the 100th anniversary of human flight?He could, if he chooses, talk about encouraging Orville and Wilbur Wright-like projects with incentives like the Zero Gravity/Zero Tax proposal. With such empowerment, mind-boggling projects like the collection of solar power from arrays of solar panels hold the promise of an abundant energy source for humankind. Our president has the opportunity to excite a whole new generation about space. I implore him to do so. He has been a great leader since September 11. Now, he can make a historic mark on another great defining quest for our nation.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican, is chairman of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee of the House Science Committee.

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