Future of NASA

I support Mars and Lunar colonies now. But I feel that NASA run operations won’t work. NASA has become too blunt an instrument. We get way too little bang for our buck with NASA. They need to evolve into a much smaller granting and underwriting operation. But no self-perpetuating bureaucracy ever voluntarily shrinks. So it is most likely that it will lurch on into the future, doing fewer and fewer missions while consuming huge amounts of capital that would be better spent in private hands.
As an example of how the NASA of the future might function, suppose the current Mars “Curiosity” mission had been set up as an “X-Prize” type operation, with the proviso that the company or organization that completes the mission as described in the grant also has exclusive exploitation rights to any developments, media coverage, inventions, procedures and discoveries on Mars. If they find diamonds, they have first claim because the territory mapped out by the rover belongs to them. Possibly an generous land grant would be a part of the deal.
The advantages to this type of system are clear and have historical precedent. Charles Lindbergh flew NY to Paris to win a prize. He did it as economically and quickly as possible. If NASA had undertaken this challenge, they would spend five years planning a massive expedition and then after that, might actually begin development of an aircraft. The Parisians would still be waiting at Le Bourget Field for the plane to arrive.

One comment

  1. Rick Kwan says:

    I also support Mars and Luna colonies. For me, the level of NASA involvement is an extremely convoluted issue. Private industry is extremely dependent on NASA for some of its technologies, e.g., heat shield material. All recoverable US spacecraft from LEO or beyond have depended on this work, including those launched by private industry. SpaceX basically got the formula and a lot of NASA cooperation to make Dragon work. The lifting body design of Sierra Nevada’s DreamChaser is fundamentally derived from NASA/NACA work. As near as I can tell, it is not economically feasible for private industry to build a separate arcjet facility to test materials, and no one outside of NASA has improved on the materials — at least not to the point where designers would prefer these other materials instead.

    There are a lot of areas where I might agree that NASA-run operations could be done far more efficiently by private industry. But Mars Curiosity is not one of them. (Sorry, Doug.) In my mind, JPL (which is quasi-NASA; it’s really an FFRDC) has demonstrated the best robotics work of anyone in the world, and it benefits from collaborations with other roboticists around the world.

    Prizes are good to an extent. NASA has a few of them, running by the Office of Chief Technologist. The NASA Centennial Challenges are, in fact, public-private partnerships. Some have useful results; some do not.

    Sometimes challenges don’t work. In 2004, Robert Bigelow set up America’s Space Prize, worth US$50 million to be awarded to the first privately-funded US team to send astronauts to a Bigelow Aerospace space module. The prize expired in 2010. There were no winners. And Bigelow had to cut back his staff because there was no way to get people to his module. Hopefully, the Google Lunar X Prize will have better luck. There are still several serious teams pursuing the prize.

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