We stand poised to enter a new age — an age many of us believe will be born of our breakout into space. Yet while many have heralded the beginning of this new space age over the years based on single events or activities, they have been wrong. Not Yuri Gagarin’s flight, the first steps on the Moon, my team’s takeover of the Mir space station as the world’s first commercial space facility, our flight of Dennis Tito as the world’s first spaceflight participant on the international space station, or the highly publicized yet undelivered promise of the X Prize have signaled the sea change needed to really be seen as the demarcation between the days of “old space” and a “new space” era.
However, as we enter 2013, I can at last, and with complete seriousness, declare the space revolution is beginning.
In the last year or so, several indicators occurred that are harbingers of what is to come, and at last set the stage for a space revolution:
- The space shuttle ended its reign as the oft-dreamed-of-yet-imaginary gateway to space, and along with it shattered a powerful and long-dominant constituency for the status quo in space.
- A commercial cargo container berthed repeatedly with the international space station, proving the old-school all-government space program protectionists wrong in their prognostications of failure.
- Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) and Bigelow Aerospace signed an agreement for SpaceX to carry Bigelow payloads and passengers into space. Little noticed, this means for the first time a commercial transportation system will service a commercial space destination with no government involved.
- Officials with startup Planetary Resources announced plans to mine asteroids — and not only were they not laughed off the world stage, but they drew major and credible investment, inspiring others to begin their own endeavors.
- U.S. President Barack Obama was re-elected. Completely outside of partisan considerations, it means those working to transform the relationship between the U.S. government and the private sector in space (such as getting NASA out of the transportation business and developing capabilities) can continue and build on their work.
- To wrap up 2012, the Golden Spike Co. announced the first commercial human lunar mission. It’s an apparently real and serious run at the prize of putting humans on the Moon within a decade — a private-sector version of President John F. Kennedy’s challenge of the 1960s.
As we enter 2013 even more breakthrough projects and agendas are being announced, including the attachment of a Bigelow commercial module to the space station, my own Deep Space Industries and others I am sure are soon to be announced. These efforts will continue the momentum, building the strength and community that will very quickly become one of the most important cultural drivers in human history. By year’s end we will see more flights of new vehicles and new entrants into the commercial space transport field, and the rise of a brand new beyond-low-Earth-orbit industrial space sector, focused on large-scale private space activities beyond transportation.
What is remarkable is how much of this is being driven by citizens and not the government. In fact NASA has yet to fully comprehend and embrace what is going on, even as its more forward-thinking leaders begin to structure the agency for this new reality. After all, the government has an important role to play in the “new space” era, either as a supporter, enabler and catalyst, or as a competitor, inhibitor and roadblock.
This is why, now more than ever, it is important that you who believe in the dream of expanding humanity into space become a part of this community and that this community becomes a movement, and that this movement begins to speak with a clear and unified voice to lay out an agenda that is in our interest. For if we don’t — if those who share the dream do nothing, or if those of us who are doing something continue to attack one another’s plans, destinations, approaches and technologies — we will stumble on the first roadblocks put in our way, and like a mob, tumble into a chaotic pile of plans delayed, money wasted and dreams destroyed.
Of course we will compete with one another, and of course we will each have our own favorite technology or target, but we need to seek our commonalities and make sure that we educate those outside our community as to why they need to do the right things, and the dangers of the wrong.
Here are some things the U.S. government must do that will help us develop a new space industry and support its own exploration program:
- Declare that the development and settlement of space is a national goal, and that supporting this goal is the prime rationale for our human spaceflight program (even as we do scientific exploration).
- Announce that in support of this goal, NASA is going to focus all of its exploration efforts on the far frontier beyond the Moon including blazing the trail to Mars via Phobos/Deimos, and will become a customer and anchor tenant for activities in the near frontier (which includes low Earth orbit, asteroids and the Moon).
- Focus life science funds on research and technology that support the above goals (such as long-term human space habitation studies and centrifuges to determine gravitational effects; this could include a Lagrangian point station).
- Blaze the trail to Mars in ways that create markets for and leave behind infrastructure created by the private sector.
- Design infrastructure and needs in such a way that in-space providers can manage all supply and other services, and enforce rules that require operational contracts to be pay-for-delivery, not pay-for-effort.
- Buy the ride, not the rocket. Drop all plans to build government rocketships and buy rides on multiple commercial fleets. (No frontier has ever been opened based on a single government ship, and it won’t happen this time either.)
- Purchase data and information needed to support near-frontier science and exploration goals from private groups and companies. (Examples: asteroid, lunar data and possible samples.)
- Aggressively promote and enable financial and legal tools to promote development of space resources and human expansion. (Examples: tax incentives, property rights.)
- Here are some of the wrong things our government could do:
- Develop top-level programs or agendas that compete with or are within the scope of the private sector. (Example: NASA missions to prospect/return asteroids rather than preparing to send humans to explore Mars. It’s too late. Building a NASA asteroid constituency will just cause a repeat of the turf war we just had regarding low Earth orbit transportation — and we will all lose. The president needs to redirect the program to something the private sector isn’t and can’t yet do. The asteroids in NASA’s sites should be Phobos and Deimos only.)
- Force the development of national space vehicles that compete with commercial systems. (Example: the Senate Launch System.)
- Hinder U.S. commercial firms when it comes to creating international partnerships. (Example: the International Traffic in Arms Regulations and other controls limiting interactions and the flow of ideas.)
- Arbitrarily use international partnerships over the domestic private sector for needed services. (Example: Soyuz astronaut ferry vs. U.S. space taxi services.)
- Place too many regulations on private-sector space activities. (Example: general tendency of Washington to meddle and overregulate high-profile industries.)
As we move into a new year and political term, we also have the chance to enter a new era in the opening of space. It is going to happen regardless of anything Washington does. It has already started. Yet there is a choice to be made. And its effects will be historic and ripple down through time.
The next leap forward in human civilization can happen fast and catapult America into a new level of scientific, economic and cultural excellence that sets our path for generations to come. We can build on our space legacy and the brilliance and daring of the current generation of commercial space entrepreneurs and government explorers and do amazing and incredible things that will enrich the lives of the people of this planet.
Or we can stagger blindly and slowly outward, tripping over our own government and betting on the chance we will succeed in spite of ourselves as others capitalize on our early leadership and move ahead into space, learning its secrets, harvesting its wealth and expanding their civilizations into the infinite cosmos as we once again snatch mediocrity from the offered hand of greatness.
Rick N. Tumlinson is the founder of the EarthLight Institute and the Texas Space Alliance and co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation.