Former space shuttle manager Wayne Hale dances right to the edge of the logical conclusion to his essay “Space Leadership for a Difficult Time” [Nov. 4, Commentary, page 15] but can’t quite bring himself to jump in. 

He states that the conventional wisdom of the “established” railroad contractors was that building the Transcontinental Railroad would take two decades and never turn a profit. “[U]pstart non-railroad entrepreneurs got approval, raised the money” — and collected subsidies in the form of land grants — “built it in less than five years, and walked away rich men.” Mr. Hale admits he can no longer dismiss Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and Orbital Sciences Corp., which are now pulling off a similar feat on the new frontier.

With the Space Launch System (SLS), we are using most of our money propping up “established” contractors rather than supporting the brash newcomers. However efficiently or otherwise it is being built, the SLS is a rocket we cannot afford to develop, or to fly, while doing much of anything else in deep space. 

Allow me to propose the true conclusion to Mr. Hale’s argument: Pull the plug on the SLS. Use the money saved to actually build and fly hardware for deep-space vessels. Launch components on already existing rockets that we don’t have to pay money we don’t have to develop. Build our interplanetary transports with the techniques Mr. Hale so successfully helped invent with the shuttle program’s construction of the international space station. And create a fragile and dangerous U.S. presence on the Moon or an asteroid in five or 10 years rather than a secure outpost in decades — or, more likely, never.

Just as the transcontinental railroad was built by upstarts, supporting today’s newcomers is the road to space most likely to succeed for the money we can raise. If we give “new space” companies the support they need, maybe it will be Americans who walk away rich men and women.

Donald F. Robertson

San Francisco

Donald F. Robertson is a retired space industry journalist and technical writer based in San Francisco.