- The Washington Times - Monday, June 21, 2004

Since it was announced six months ago, the president’s new vision for space exploration has been criticized as too vague and too expensive. Yet as the final report from the President’s Commission on Moon, Mars and Beyond was released last week demonstrates, implementing that vision is both possible and vital to national interests.

The commission — composed of scientists, industry leaders and space policy experts and chaired by former Air Force Secretary Edward “Pete” Aldridge — unanimously endorsed the vision, and offered both programmatic and pragmatic recommendations for fulfilling it. One of the report’s most striking features was its recognition of budget and geopolitical realities. While China and other nations are investing in space, there is little probability — at least in the short- to middle-term — that they will threaten U.S. dominance there. As a consequence, NASA budget planning must have more of the tortoise than the hare — rarely flashy but steadily moving forward for years and decades to come.

To drive that steady progression into space, the commission recommended that NASA place much more emphasis on the private sector. Commissioners said private industry should “have a far larger presence” in space operations and that NASA should reach into “commercial and non-profit communities” for their ideas and innovations. It also recommended that policy-makers encourage the development of a “robust space industry,” which would eventually become “a national treasure.” NASA would have the imprimatur to contract out most of its work aside from extremely specialized functions, such as human space flight.

Yesterday’s successful flight of SpaceShipOne — the first private spacecraft to take humans into near space — proves that such enterprises have real potential. The craft was designed and built for a fraction of what state-sponsored efforts cost. Other endeavors are almost certain to follow.

The commission also recommended, among other things, that NASA be streamlined and that its field centers be transformed into research and development centers. John Logsdon, the director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, said that, if implemented, the recommendations would be “the most radical transformation of how NASA does business since NASA was created.”

Not all the commission’s recommendations will be easy to follow. But they should be tried. The vision has been laid out, and recommendations for its implementation have been reported. Congress should give the president the authority he needs to take the next steps into space.

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