Time to Commercialize Space
by Jeff Wright, February 3, 2003
I grew up in the Space Program. Literally. When I was just a boy in the 50s and early 60s we spent every summer out at Edwards AFB or Rocketdyne in the desert north of Los Angeles. My father was an aircraft technician in the X-15 experimental program at North American Aviation and later worked his way up to be a Quality Assurance Engineer on Mercury, Gemini and Apollo at Rockwell, Intl. Before his retirement, he completed work on the final assembly of Enterprise and Columbia. As a kid I met and worshipped many test pilots, astronauts and the engineers that built space systems. I lived, ate and breathed space stuff.
I followed my Dad into a career in technology. I worked as an engineer on the initial design and construction of what was originally called the Consolidate Space Operations Center (CSOC), now Schriever AFB here in Colorado Springs, and many other Defense system programs. I have continued to follow the Space Program very closely over the years. The successes and failures always seem very personal to me.
The failure of Columbia is not shocking, though. It has been known for years by NASA and anyone who follows space development that the next "Challenger" disaster was coming. This latest failure makes me very angry, as it should others.
Not only was this failure inevitable, it was avoidable. It was avoidable because we should have been out of the Shuttle Program years ago. We are not because the Congress and NASA continue to dominate the Launch technologies business and its prime contractors march to the beat set by Congress and NASA. We are not because NASA, through its influence and contract awards, constantly dominates, dissuades and discourages free market competition in space that could compete with it.
Through their arrogance and foolishness they have now crippled both the shuttle program and the International Space Station (ISS). Yet another 20-year-old boondoggle that will exceed its original design, development and operational cost by 700% and fall far short of original goals.
It is time to get NASA out of the Space Business (except maybe for pure research) once and for all. It is time the commercialization of space was really more than "Tang and Velcro." Market mechanisms are much better at advancing a technology than any government. Witness the Internet, Microelectronics, BioTech, Software, you name it.
Before he died, my father became a vehement foe of NASA for those reasons. So did most of the "old timers" he knew that developed the original space program. After Apollo he said the government should have relinquished Space to private commercialization. Because they didn't, and refuse now, Space development and the associated technologies have been held back for decades. This is sad and indefensible and this point. Challenger, 16 years ago, was the wake up. Columbia is the slap in the face.
Let's hope the right direction for the future finally comes out of the recent tragic events. Let's hope the death of this crew is not in vain.
Jeff Wright is currently the General Partner of TeleComm Resource, a large-scale network consulting firm and one of the principals in a new technology start-up venture TimeWarpTrade. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.