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by Mark Raleigh

It’s Not Science Fiction

Something has to give as companies bite into NASA’s mission.

Will international research cooperation give way to corporate competition? - Mark RaleighAsk anyone under 40 what image best represents space travel, and that image is likely to be the NASA space shuttle. The July landing of the Atlantis marked the end of that symbolic legacy, and perhaps the end of open collaboration in space science, thanks to a coincident shift in U.S. space policy. After 50 years of NASA-operated missions, the Obama administration changed space policy, and NASA vehicles won’t be sending humans into space for the foreseeable future. Citing cost savings, President Obama wants NASA’s astronauts to be ferried to the international space station at first by Russia and then by private-sector spacecraft, which have yet to be proved as safe transport for human crews. To solidify his stance, the president also axed the Constellation program, NASA’s standing successor to the shuttle program. While it may not guarantee long-term efficiency and cost reduction, the shift from NASA to the private sector may irrevocably alter NASA’s fundamental role in space science and open up the possibility of corporate dominance in space.

The prospect of a private corporation owning the rocket and operating the mission presents a radical change in mission command and control. NASA may devolve from a self-made exploration agency into a customer that relies on the private sector, undoubtedly incurring intellectual losses along the way. Adding insult to injury, the policy shift also threatens to reduce NASA into a docile “money broker” between the president’s mandated policy and the private sector’s drive for profit in supplying the required technology. In a bizarre turn of events, an experienced space agency might find itself brokering contracts to a relatively inexperienced pool of corporations. This is not science fiction, as emerging corporations have already won multibillion- dollar contracts to transport NASA cargo and crews to the space station.

NASA has regularly fostered collaboration and open cooperation, words that rarely describe the operations of a profit-driven corporation. As private space activity progresses, the corporations’ engineers are not likely to share lessons learned because these may be viewed as trade secrets. The flow of vital design information may be impeded. In turn, separate NASA-funded corporations might repeat others’ mistakes, resulting in inefficiency or, worse, possible disaster.

Supporters of the policy shift often point to corporate claims of lower costs. To be fair, NASA has historically been in a difficult spot, with high aspirations dictated by politicians and insufficient funds allocated from the federal budget. As a former administrator has pointed out, Americans spend more per year on pizza than on NASA. Although companies say their spacecraft will end up costing less, this claim has not been proved. And while NASA lapses have contributed to sobering tragedies, is it logical to expect that the risks of space travel will diminish with a cheaper private option? Strict federal restrictions will surely emerge following the first private disaster, driving up costs and reducing the promised savings.

My worst fear of privatized space operations is what it means for advancing science. At least since the end of the Cold War, space has fostered international cooperation. The ultimate example of that cooperation is the international space station, which has hosted experiments across a wide range of physical and biological disciplines and provided a unique test bed for new technologies. But the ISS is due to cease operating after 2020, and no decision has been reached on a successor research platform. While corporations already have a space presence – through satellites, for instance – Obama’s policy change invites them to establish a larger presence. Initial profits of this fledgling industry will come almost exclusively from government contracts, fed by taxpayers’ dollars that might otherwise have supported NASA’s scientific endeavors. However, it is possible that federal investment in private space agencies today will give them a life of their own tomorrow, where corporations grow and come to dominate space exploration. Only history will tell whether Obama has opened a Pandora’s box, where the privatization of today’s space missions yields control of tomorrow’s space colonies and outposts.


Mark Raleigh is a doctoral candidate in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington and a NASA Earth and Space Science Fellow.




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