A few months ago, I walked away from the battle between those pushing for what I helped label as the “Senate Launch System” and those fighting to build commercial space transportation systems. After helping birth the baby of commercial spaceflight and then protecting it from those who felt threatened by its promise, I saw it actually not just begin to stand on its own two feet, but take flight — literally.
Aside from being exhausted, and needing to pull the arrows out of my front (and back), I decided to “create a clearing for a new conversation” with those who I had seen as enemies before — a conversation about what is possible if we learn from our battles and what we can accomplish if we work together to apply these lessons to our future. And it is working. I am talking to people who I once excoriated, they are talking to me, and guess what, we share a lot of the same goals — if not the same ideas on how to achieve them. But it is a start. And if I can do it, and they can do it, so can you.
Those on the front lines know, on both sides, just how tough a battle it has been to transform the U.S. government space program to a shared activity with both the government and private sector taking on new and often uncomfortable roles. Yet we are seeing it happen, in many small ways and some that are highly visible, such as our shared success in getting Space Exploration Technologies and Orbital Sciences berthed to the space station, and companies like NanoRacks and Bigelow at last working in a productive relationship with NASA. After more than 25 years of political trench warfare, re-education and demonstration, we are at last beginning the transition from a government-run command economy in human spaceflight to the beginnings of an industrial/commercial enterprise.
And yes, even though we can see with our own eyes that U.S. companies can do the job of flying supplies and eventually people to and from space, the battles aren’t over. There are still those in Washington who think that national rockets are the only way to open space, that government employees are the only ones qualified to “do” space, and that despite all evidence to the contrary Congress is somehow better equipped to micromanage our future on the frontier than those both in NASA and the private sector who must do the job. Fine. As they say here in Texas, the commercial horse is out of the barn, and the government will either have to ride it, hitch a wagon to it or try and shoot it as it runs past and ahead.
I know where my bet is placed, but now I have other things to do.
To quote Robert Heinlein: “Once you get to Earth orbit, you are halfway to anywhere in the solar system.” Well, I hereby leave the orbit part to others. I am focused on the anywhere.
My first mission will be to bang some heads together in our own space community. As for right now we are our own worst enemy. It has to stop or we will all face failure. We are like a group of maniacal subdivisions of a church — all true believers, yet each with our own definition of heaven, our own way of getting there, and armed with ammo belts full of facts we can unleash on anyone who has the temerity to assume he or she has a viable idea, approach or destination worth considering.
I know whereof I speak. As I have been guilty of doing just this (and if I may say so myself, I am pretty good at it). And while I am not suggesting some sort of Rodney King “Can’t we all just get along?” lament, I am suggesting right now is the time to at least begin to try and find commonalities, areas of agreement, and to seek at least at the highest level some sort of unity in what is to me clearly and easily the most important undertaking in the history of humanity — if not life itself.
That may sound grandiose and overstated, but it isn’t. And anyone reading this who “gets it” knows what I mean. Whether you are working on or support Orion or Dragon, the international space station or Bigelow, whether you spend your days in a Loral cleanroom or soldering a cubesat in your garage, whether you are a staffer in Washington or bring doughnuts for the local space society meeting, whether you are an astronaut or just nuts about astronomy, you at some level understand the import and possibility of what is out there — or you wouldn’t be doing what you are doing.
So let’s for a moment put down our flags, quit stomping on each other’s footprints and work on a unified vision that will support all of our dreams, yet allow all of us to do our own thing, do it in our own way and go to those places we each want to go.
In the next year or two we have a huge opportunity, and we cannot blow it. Here’s why I say this:
We are exactly between presidential elections, as close to a calm period as there might be in terms of politics.
The first citizens are about to start flying into space — including many high-wealth, high-profile opinion makers.
American companies are at last about to bring the flying of astronauts back home to the United States from Russia.
The first credible humans-to-Mars plans are starting to weave together in public-private partnerships. In fact I can say with some authority this will also be the case in terms of the Moon and asteroids as well. As government and private-sector desires for mega-missions and projects collide with budget realities, it will at last become clear they must work together to achieve their own goals — be it science, profit or glory.
Throw in pressures to respond to Chinese and Indian initiatives on the Moon and Mars and we have many of the elements and pressures needed to do something important — if we don’t blow it — as we have done so many times before.
So what can we do to leverage these (and the many other opportunities I don’t have room to list here) in a way that will enable us all to do this important work and at the same time realize our own dreams?
Simple (and of course damnably hard for some).
First, we must all agree that our goal is to explore and open the frontier of space to humanity and life.
Second, we must create a shared agenda that will make this happen as quickly as possible, and not only as cheaply as possible, but also maximizing our investments in capital and taxes by the amount of knowledge and wealth we return to Earth, and the chance for participation available to everyone, in this country and the world.
Then, we need to use the voices and volume once dedicated to pronouncing our own individual solutions to communicate this shared top-level set of goals and the agenda we agree upon to the rest of the world — including those people who are buying tickets into space and watching on the Net and TV, those in Washington who have yet to “get it” when it comes to this revolution, and those out there who, based on old precepts, ideas and ignorance, need to be educated about the amazing and incredible future that lies just above and ahead of us.
Look, I may be many things, but I am by this time not naive. I am not telling you to give up your own dreams, or assuming the battles over who’s got the biggest Internet service provider or baddest PowerPoint will end by sprinkling magic space dust over everyone (could that be a market?). Heck, that’s what makes some of this fun. I am just suggesting we agree to disagree on the details and destinations, base the winners on the merits, and focus on agreeing why we are doing this, and how we can all do it together so everyone wins.
So what will you do? Do we rise together, or hang out there under a canopy of stars we will never reach, alone?
Rick N. Tumlinson is chairman of Deep Space Industries, an asteroid mining company; founder of the Orbital Outfitters spacesuit company; and co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation and Texas Space Alliance.