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We began this 7-part series with a quote that captures the frustration of many space enthusiasts but that also – undeservedly, we believe – pins the blame for their unrealized dreams on (a lack of) NASA, Congressional and White House leadership:
NASA is “a narrow space program with timid objectives moving forward at the snail’s pace of politically constrained bureaucracy.”
Truth is, NASA is an agency in the Executive Branch of the United States Government. Like all agencies, it does not independently decide what it is going to do. It executes only what it is told to execute. And for the past 60 years it has done so remarkably well.
Yes, Congress has given NASA some pretty tall orders and written some pretty big checks along the way – some bigger than others – to enable NASA to achieve its unsurpassed track record of accomplishments. Some say, “Not enough money.” Others say, “Far too much.”
The reality is that, as of today, NASA has done what it has done and Congress has funded what it has funded. It is also reality that, once again this year, Congress is not going to write NASA a much larger check to do all of the things it is capable of doing.
So, without a big check, do we space enthusiasts all pack up and go home? Of course not.
Do we keep advocating the same decades-old reasons for writing a big check until Congress sees the light we see? (You know: survival of the species, scientific knowledge, infinite natural resources, continuing political prestige, etc.)
Answer: Only if you would like to slow the current pace of things even more.
Look In and Beyond the Mirror to See the Future
In Part 5 of this series, we urged the aerospace community to “know what you have.” People like Elon Musk, Robert Bigelow, and Sir Richard Branson have their own images of this; and only time will tell if they are correct. They may well become the Queen Isabellas of our time, having decided to invest their personal wealth in successful Christopher Columbus-like commercial endeavors requiring huge upfront investments for uncertain payoffs far beyond the risk tolerance of ordinary investors.
The common denominator here is that, regardless of their “space geek” quotient, these gentlemen have concluded that space is “a means” for delivering commercial value. And they are fully aware that this value lies all up and down the supply chain, producing profits from primary users to downstream consumers that have no idea that space is involved in the delivery of the goods and services they purchase.
For many space enthusiasts – and this includes many space entrepreneurs, space investors, space technologists, and space policy wonks – the “downstream” segment of this view leaves them cold. If it is not IN SPACE, it’s boring. It’s impure. It’s “not in my backyard.”
But it is to these same enthusiasts that we unequivocally assert that if you want to achieve your dreams of space exploration, the most expeditious route for doing so runs through the terrestrial commercialization of space technology.
Consider this. Instead of government funding, the far deeper pockets of the capital markets can accelerate the development of the technology needed for efficient and productive space operations. For many space-critical components, this could be done through a stepwise progression of contemporary-, near- and intermediate-term technology development with profitable terrestrial market applications. A portion of the revenues from early technology products would then be reinvested in additional technology development and, with revenue from their attendant market applications, fuel subsequent rounds until “horizon-term” systems are technically and financially feasible.
For evidence in support of this, all one need do is look at the history of today’s Information Technology industry. Like space technology development, IT had its beginnings in a government-funded vertical stovepipe populated by highly trained professionals. With procedures and vocabularies unrecognizable outside of their tight-knit communities, they doggedly pushed the rock up the hill past vacuum tubes, transistors, and integrated circuits. Slowly, major electronics companies recognized collateral uses for these new technologies in the consumer electronics of its day, like telephones, automobiles, hand held calculators, rudimentary electronic games, etc. Sales of these items funded subsequent cycles of the “technology-development-then-profit-taking” dance….and accelerated the development of things like space capsules, Moon rockets, and mainframe computers like the one that NASA used into the 1990’s to control them.
Developing today’s IT industry wasn’t cheap and instant. Government didn’t “see the light” and fund its next levels time and time again. It took the capital markets and the global market place to fuel the assent from obscurity into every corner of the globe.
That’s the light that we space enthusiasts need to seek and see, and not a repeat of the solitary brief beacon that last shone over 40 years ago.
In Part 7: How To Bridge the Chasm