NASA should encourage competition

Lee McClelland

On Saturday, Aug. 26, Neil Armstrong died after experiencing complications from a cardiovascular surgery at the age of 82. His death signals an end to an era of innovation and space exploration in America.

I was saddened to hear about Armstrong’s death because he was the first man on the moon and an American icon. He took that famous giant leap for mankind. In July 1969, he defied gravity and bounded across the moon’s dusty surface.

In 1961, John F. Kennedy pronounced to the world that America would go to the moon and a global technological race ensued.

Russia and the United States were at odds. The technological advancement from that time is almost unbelievable.

Now look at the present state of things: NASA has retired the Space Shuttle Program and each shuttle now rests in a museum.

Space exploration has become a predominantly unmanned endeavor. In the wake of a recession, America has cut funding for NASA and the future of space flight has been privatized.

Currently, there is one company that has a contract with NASA to transport cargo to and from the International Space Station and that company is SpaceX.

In the past, companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin have engineered and built rockets and shuttles for NASA. They were awarded “cost-plus” contracts, ones that funded the full cost of research and development as well as a guaranteed profit. This is no longer the case with dwindling funds for space exploration.

NASA has been giving companies subsidies, or “fixed-cost” contracts, to develop rockets that can deliver cargo to the space station.

The four original companies that were vying for a fully funded contract to transport cargo were SpaceX, Boeing, Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada.

After NASA submitted their 2013 Fiscal Year President’s Budget Summary to Congress, the House Appropriations committee requested that NASA choose one of these companies to contract out the job to cut spending.

The most successful candidate was and is SpaceX, whose company has lowered the cost of spaceflight so much so that even the Chinese government cannot match SpaceX’s launch costs, which are the lowest in the world.

SpaceX is the appropriate choice, but a real problem is created by cost-cutting decisions. NASA has now eliminated competition between aeronautic firms. It was competition that put America on the moon, so it is troubling to see NASA make such a costly misstep in the name of trimming their budget.

SpaceX sent their Falcon 9 rocket into space on May 22, 2012 and their Dragon spacecraft docked at the International Space Station on May 25. This was the first and only test of the unmanned Dragon spacecraft docking at the space station.

With relatively little testing, NASA is taking a big risk by eliminating subsidies for the other three companies competing with SpaceX. There is no longer any incentive for SpaceX to innovate at a rapid pace. Without competition, innovation is stifled.

Russia is the only country currently taking crews to and from the space station, but NASA has already awarded a contract to SpaceX for transporting crews in the future; the company doesn’t have a craft capable of this yet.

NASA hopes to have manned spaceflights sometime after 2020. In the meantime, NASA should subsidize research and development that is conducted by competing companies.

It is imperative for humankind to go into space. Galileo Galilei could only gaze at the stars in the 1600s. Now we can break away from our own atmosphere and explore the vacuum of space.

I know SpaceX can send a craft to the space station. I am confident that they will deliver precious cargo in the years to come but will they be able to create a spacecraft that can travel farther than that? I am not so sure.

Without a doubt there is a company that can send us farther into space than we have ever gone before. Perhaps that company is Boeing or Blue Origin or Sierra Nevada. But it is hard to imagine that they will be able to keep up with SpaceX now that they are a government funded company and the others are no longer subsidized.

Without capital, these other three cannot compete.

This is a turning point in space exploration, not just for America but for the world. The privatization of spaceflight may well be the boon that humanity has been waiting for.

These companies will employ many workers from all branches of science.

In the span of a decade or so, maybe a Northern Michigan University graduate will be counting down from 10 to launch the first privately funded, manned spaceflight.

I am pessimistic, though, in the same way that Neil Armstrong was. It was his opinion that divorcing man from spaceflight was detrimental to the whole industry.

I am worried more about one giant government funded company taxiing food and supplies back and forth to the space station and that men and women will be bound by gravity during a time when they could be traveling to extraterrestrial locales.

The world should worry about the next giant leap; it could be the one that causes us to fall away from our potential: prolonged spaceflight to extrarrestial locales.