Commentary | NASA’s Mission: Explore Space


U.S. lawmakers face increasing difficulty defending the NASA budget, which should be growing, not shrinking. The media enthusiasm for so-called commercial space companies is making it more and more difficult for NASA to stay in the space launch business.

Commercial space industry lobbyists Robert Walker and Charles Miller recently wrote an opinion piece calling on President Barack Obama to cancel America’s planned exploration-class launch vehicle, the Space Launch System (SLS), aimed at restoring our nation’s ability to send astronauts beyond Earth orbit for the first time in over 40 years. “Just as the government does not design or build automobiles, ships, trains or airplanes,” they said, “NASA should not be designing, building or launching rockets to go to low Earth orbit.”

They must have forgotten that it was the individuals and companies who invented automobiles, ships, trains and airplanes who then went on to design and build them. It was government agencies and the military that created, designed, built and launched rockets.

NASA is a civil space agency, and it has been encouraging the commercial use of space for the last 30 years. If NASA had not been designing, building and launching rockets into low Earth orbit for the last 50 years, private industry today would not be attempting to commercialize what was, until recently, the unknown frontier of space exploration.

While private enterprise is one of our nation’s greatest assets in virtually all fields of endeavor, private investment in private industry can be justified only when a private (nongovernmental) investor can make a reasonable return on his investment in a reasonable period of time. The exploration of space is still too risky and too costly for any truly commercial venture. “Commercial space companies” never would have gotten us to the Moon.

Because of the tremendous cost and very distant economic returns, if ever, space exploration will never be performed by commercial companies. NASA was motivated by noncommercial objectives to explore the new frontier, which enabled the agency to develop the technology being utilized in today’s commercial space community. These companies are not yet truly commercial, being mostly funded by government grants and contracts — contracts that differ from those of the private companies that built most of the NASA hardware over the years. “Commercial space companies” today are selling services based on techniques perfected by NASA over 40 years ago, and without government contracts they would not be making it.

As the technology developed by NASA has moved slowly into the commercial world, the returns have been tremendous. Now lobbyists for today’s commercial space community are trying to get NASA out of the space launch business, which they see as competition. Everyone knows that NASA is no longer in the business of building rockets to go to Earth orbit; it is focused on moving us out into the solar system.

Nothing in the world is even remotely comparable to NASA’s Space Launch System, which is designed to explore beyond Earth orbit. The SLS program has been under great funding pressure. When President Obama proposed canceling NASA’s programs to build government-designed rockets in 2010, it was not just to encourage the private sector. It was to get NASA out of the human space exploration business. Now, the president may be planning — perhaps as early as this year — to kill the Space Launch System. Efforts to make changes at NASA should not be to move the agency out of the space exploration business; they should be to reduce the internal bureaucracy and get NASA out of all those activities it has evolved into that are not essential to space exploration.

As the most powerful launch vehicle ever to fly, the Space Launch System will enable missions beyond the capabilities of other rockets, such as sending astronauts into lunar orbit, speeding large robotic probes through the outer solar system and ultimately launching the missions that will finally allow human beings to take their first steps on Mars.

We need to continue expanding our frontiers and developing the necessary technology, which private industry can exploit to generate returns in the future. While private industry may not be able to afford to explore our space frontier, commercial rocket companies can utilize and exploit technology much more efficiently than government agencies. As commercial companies move closer to that capability, NASA must expand on its pathfinder role, blazing a new trail and extending humanity’s territory beyond the near-Earth orbit to which we’re currently limited. The Space Launch System will pursue objectives that private industry cannot, making the vital investments for which there is not a viable business model for commercial exploitation.

Unless we are content with a space program that only repeats what NASA accomplished years ago, we must invest in programs like the Space Launch System to blaze new trails into our solar system. For America to continue to lead the way in space exploration, we need to move out the space frontier, opening up new worlds of economic opportunity. Exploration of the space frontier requires breakthroughs in technology that give birth to commercialization.

It’s up to NASA — not “commercial space companies.” NASA’s motto should be, quite simply, “We Explore Space.” The Space Launch System is a rocket that will make those journeys to our space frontier possible.


Walter Cunningham is an Apollo 7 astronaut, a |venture capitalist and the author of “The All-American Boys.”