NASA's loss is business's gain

View from Washington

The 2010 Budget saw President Barack Obama cancel George Bush's attempt to get American astronauts back on the Moon. His reasons for cancelling Nasa's Constellation programme were public, pointed and damning. It was 'over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation due to a failure to invest in critical new technologies'.

For example, the Ares family of rockets intended to do Constellation's heavy lifting use solid-fuel boosters, which you cannot shut down in an emergency and which have been held largely responsible for the extent of the Columbia disaster seven years ago.

Politicians from states that host Nasa's rocketry hubs say they will fight Constellation's cause, and the agency's emotional association with American technological pre-eminence has engendered a noisy outpouring of angst from within the scientific community. But such lobbying is unlikely to change things.

Obama actually intends to increase Nasa's budget at a time when those for most federal agencies are being frozen. An extra $6bn over the next five years is meant to finesse Nasa towards what the White House sees as more immediate tasks, such as environmental monitoring from low-earth orbit.

That new cash is also intended as seed money to exploit a growing industry that did not really figure in the decision-making when earlier manned flight projects were cancelled private sector rocketry.

Author Michael Belfiore in his book 'Rocketeers' has been following pioneer companies for several years. Already, he notes, companies such as SpaceX have contracts with Nasa to provide cargo and potentially human launchers.

'And the guy running SpaceX, [PayPal co-founder] Elon Musk, reckons he can get astronauts up to the International Space Station for $20m a seat. When the Space Shuttle goes out of service [later this year], the Russians say they're going to be charging us $50m. So this is important stuff,' says Belfiore.

'With these companies already having deals with Nasa and with this budget swinging more emphasis on commercial rocketry, we've got the chance to make something happen economically.

'This is an industry that's poised like IT was in the 1980s and 1990s with many more start-ups ready to grow around the first group of companies, companies with established and recognised technical expertise stimulating a whole new wave of innovation.'

For many in the US, it is an enticing image one that recalls the R&D spin-offs from the Apollo programme credited with generating a wave of economic growth 40 years ago. Through their association, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, the private rocketeers say they can create 5,000 new jobs. Constellation may not be a depressing cancellation, but the harbinger of a profitable evolution.

Nasa statement:


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