As I watch the U.S. election process unfold, it reminds me of how far we have yet to go in the battle for the hearts and minds of our political class in terms of understanding the seismic shift under way in space, and what would be possible if they would actually lead instead of fighting it or, as is the case with most, missing its significance completely.
The iconic example of this to me occurred months ago, when the congressman in charge of approving NASA’s budget said (paraphrasing), “We are not here to build a spaceflight industry, we are here to get NASA a launch system ASAP” — as tens of millions were cut from programs to invest in commercial space and millions were allowed to be wasted on the Senate Launch System and other dead-end state-run space transportation programs.
His words were an almost exact refutation of something I have said repeatedly, and even months later they echo in my mind — especially in this election period. This is not because I have any issue with the congressman, who I am told is a good person and simply focused on trying to do what he thinks is best for our national budget. It is not because he paraphrased me in his comments, nor even because his words were said in the middle of a head-spinning debate that has pitted pro-socialist space program Republicans against a pro-enterprise Democratic president.
It is because his statement shows that even as it is happening, even as one can turn on the news and see commercial spaceships berthing with the space station, the political class simply doesn’t “get it.” It also highlights the huge divide between those working for a new American future in space and those fighting to save the status quo — and how those of us working for the commercial development and settlement of space and those caught in the old “NASA is space” paradigm are talking completely past each other.
It is not just because I believe that we need to develop and settle space as a national imperative that I think the congressman was absolutely wrong. He is wrong because he and those like him are missing the point.
We are here to build a new commercial space industry, or at least we should be. Not just because it will free up NASA to focus on exploration and inspiring new missions like the recent Mars landing; not just because without it we may be able to retake the beach of the Moon but we will still not be able to hold it without an industrial infrastructure; not just because by doing so we can begin an upward and self-growing employment spiral that means hundreds of thousands of jobs a few years downstream; but also because it will assure that we never again find ourselves in the pathetic position of having to buy rides into space for our government employees from another nation, and instead will be selling rides to the citizens of other nations on our ships.
You see, so long as we are focused merely on how to get NASA a ride into space, or how NASA will explore space for the taxpayers instead of working with them to open a new frontier, we are doomed to repeat the same loop that gave us nothing to show for Apollo but flags and footprints, nothing to show for the space shuttle but museum displays, and nothing to show for the space station but fantastic astronaut photographs from space on Facebook — doomed to taking and retaking the beach of the frontier and never being able to hold it, let alone profit from it or expand our presence there. Because government can’t do that job. Only people can, people in the form of companies, organizations and yes, eventually communities and families.
It is time to change the discussion. In fact it is time to change the entire basis of the discussion and the reason we are having it at all. It is time for this nation to develop and settle the frontier — not build and throw away, and not just visit or explore, although those are good too. Develop and settle — then do it again, and again, and again.
The American people have agreed to spend $18 billion of their hard-earned money on space. Of that, let’s say $10 billion is to be spent on activities involving humans on the frontier. I say it is time to spend that money on not just pretending to someday put a few humans on this or that technological beach, but to enable and create the systems, the industries and the economy that will arise from that beachhead.
It is time to kick-start a new U.S. space transportation industry and time to spread that industry into space itself, leveraging our space station legacy to ignite imaginations and entrepreneurship so that we can move farther out, back to the Moon, out to the asteroids and on to Mars.
Imagine, in each of these cases, if instead of focusing on a short-term single activity or piece of hardware we had decided to invest in an economic industrial base to provide and build on the achievement of the announced goal. Instead of a generation that doesn’t remember or even doubts we ever went to the Moon, we would by now have thriving communities there. Instead of a wave of unemployed rocket builders and support personnel, we would have spaceships filling the sky, paychecks filling the wallets of space workers and thriving space centers doing important research in districts across the nation. And instead of a $100 billion boondoggle known as the Space Launch System sucking the life out of our space program, we would have an orbital industrial infrastructure, raining down profits, processes and patents on the U.S. economy.
To do so means it is time to end the ongoing and seemingly endless food fights between “old space” and “new space” advocates (if one can call the occasional snatching of scraps and crumbs by the frontier movement from the federal table a fight). No one is winning except a few K Street lobbyists, and everyone else is losing, especially the American people and everyone on both sides who truly cares about reaching for the stars.
Yes, Mr. Congressman, that means we are about building a new commercial space industry, one that will assure American access to space based on multiple means and multiple technologies that will not only save us billions but generate income and jobs. Yes, we are about leading the world in science, exploration and education, as NASA is freed from the yoke of trying to pull its own wagon and can allow its employees to reach out and touch the edge of what is possible. And yes, we are about giving the taxpayers a real and ever-growing return on the hundreds of billions they have invested in the dream.
Space is a frontier, and the rules of a frontier apply. It is a place, not a program. It will be opened not by government, but by the people. In our society it is by investing and empowering our people that we advance our national good — not by relegating the people to the service of government.
To the congressman and the others entrusted with our money and dreams, you owe us much more than short-term solutions that solve nothing. Show us some vision. Show us some real, long-term, rational thinking — even if it is self-serving in the end. Spend our money wisely this time. Put it into something that will give back more than we spend.
NewSpace, commercial space, whatever you want to call it, is rising, with or without government support. It is the people’s program, and it is about putting people in space, lots of them in lots of places using lots of rocket ships and systems.
So trust the people. Trust in our economic system and the genius and hard work of our citizens beyond the mandate and control of government. Trust that we all share the same dream, and use the funds we give you the right way — by investing in us.
I promise you will make our money back — and much more.
Rick N. Tumlinson is the founder of the EarthLight Institute and the Texas Space Alliance and co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation.