The Role of Commercial Spaceflight

–These views are my own, not endorsed by present or past employers. Space colonization is one of my long-standing personal interests.

The Future of Spaceflight, Part I of III

It’s not hard to get mad on the internet. I came across an article months ago covering either the Virgin Galactic crash or one of the commercial resupply (COTS) failures, which I track like others track Steelers’ losses. (SpaceX lost a vehicle in June. Orbital Sciences lost one in October 2014.) This particular article decried commercial ventures when all NASA has to do is get back on its game.

Pardon me while I drag my soapbox over.

NASA will tell you that it’s handing off routine spaceflight, so it can focus its relatively meager resources on exploration and science. And that’s a fine view. Excitements like the ridiculously complex Curiosity rover landing (Here’s a good summary.) and New Horizons Pluto flyby highlight the thrill of discovery, the joy of conquering technical challenges, and the way science can unite us peacefully as a species.

But let’s face it: NASA, bogged down by federal budgets and bureaucratic oversight, can do only so much. One slip, and it ends up in media crosshairs, just like private companies do. But unlike them, NASA is funded by the elected officials the media’s consumers choose. NASA’s direction isn’t decided by a focused group with the luxury of ignoring public opinion to keep its missions centered. NASA must be cautious above all else.

Caution and innovation can go only so far, so fast.

A company can take risks, recover from missteps, and act on fewer interests. It has a lot more latitude to decide what it will focus on—and that’s a head start. Companies have a lot more flexibility where government organizations do not.

In the end, if we want to get off the planet, private corporations will be the ones to make it happen, whether by space tourism (Virgin Galactic or Bigelow Aerospace), asteroid mining (Planetary Resources), or microgravity pharmaceuticals (who’ll start this with me?).

If all goes well, it’s just a matter of time.