“Inner space is useful. Outer space is history.” Thus reads the subhead of the cover editorial in the current issue of The Economist. It’s just another major media outlet taking the opportunity of the Space Shuttle’s retirement to declare the end of human space exploration. At least this magazine mentions Elon Musk and Sir Richard Branson, two of the entrepreneurs working to make space truly accessible for the first time. In editorials last week, the New York Times didn’t even do that, saying, for example, “America still has no vision at all for its space program, no plan for where to go next or how.”
Fact is, with the competition of the Shuttle out of the way, NewSpace, as the burgeoning commercial space flight industry is sometimes known, is number one on the runway, and there’s no good reason to assume that it will fail. SpaceX became the first private company to launch and then recover a spacecraft from orbit last year, and is on track to begin cargo deliveries to the International Space Station this year. Certainly it’s not fair to say that America has no plan in space. In fact it’s completely inaccurate.
If I were slightly more paranoid, I’d say there was a conspiracy afoot, especially since I pitched an editorial to The Times summarizing the President’s and NASA’s commitment to foster the development of commercial spaceships and return to the kind of blue sky research that got us to the moon. My pitch was well received, and then…silence. After that initial enthusiastic reception, I got no further replies to my queries. Next came the gloom and doom stories about how the Shuttle’s last mission is the nail in the coffin for America’s preeminence in space. Did the editors I pitched get overruled by their bosses?
A case could be made for a conspiracy. Billions of dollars of NASA pork are at stake. Powerful politicians are doing everything they can to stave off the inevitable commercial space age. They’re working to preserve the fiction that only big government programs can get people into space, cut the relative pitance NASA is awarding NewSpace for working hardware, and add billions more to those already spent on a succession of government concept vehicles.
Nevertheless, I choose to be optimistic, chalking up the inaccuracies in the media to misinformation. After 50 years of government-owned space flight, it’s hard for people to let go of the idea that space is a government program and not just another place to do business.
I’m continuing my education campaign on the radio this week. Click on the station names below to link to live streams. All times are Eastern.
Times UPDATED 7/11/11 at 9:20 a.m.
Thursday, July 14
1:15 p.m., KLWN, Lawrence, KS