Return to Flight
May 1, 2005 3:23 PM   Subscribe

So far the Return to Flight has been a bumpy ride for NASA. Apparently things over there are run like a bureaucracy and agency officials are worried about ice or foam insulation coming off the space shuttle again.

Will private companies eventually dominate space exploration and make NASA a thing of the past?
posted by Guerilla (28 comments total)
Why would this ever happen? Nasa does a great job -- who knew in 1969 when we landed on the moon that thirty-six years later, I'd be writing this comment on Mars?
posted by orthogonality at 3:48 PM on May 1, 2005

Maybe. Unless there are substantial profits to be made from deep space exploration, there will be no way for private companies to fund such ventures.

Space tourism is going to happen with short distance flights (Virgin is investing in Scaled Composites), but deep space exploration will probably be best left to NASA and others. If there is no financial incentive the only way it is going to happen is through NASA. However, perhaps as the private sector develops they will be able to work together and build on eachother's advances. The internet is a good example of government and private entities developing and improving something over time. This doesn't have to be an either/or proposition.
posted by tweak at 4:08 PM on May 1, 2005

posted by Space Coyote at 4:10 PM on May 1, 2005

posted by Steve_at_Linnwood at 4:49 PM on May 1, 2005

Deep space? No. Satellite launches and maintenance? Yes.
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 4:59 PM on May 1, 2005

posted by drezdn at 5:28 PM on May 1, 2005

I think it's obvious that private companies will come to dominate space flight (unless governments hamstring them) sooner or later. The good news is, once industry makes going into space cheap and convenient, deep space exploration is basically thrown in for (nearly) free. The expensive bit is getting out of the earth's gravity well. Once you're there, you don't need brute force any more. Launch the parts of your probe (or manufacture them at a space station) and assemble them in orbit instead of building crazy hardware that has to both survive a booster launch and then deploy itself once it's in space.
posted by RylandDotNet at 5:52 PM on May 1, 2005

The problem is that there is a HUGE gap between what we have now and the privatization which is inevitable. The costs to start up any such venture will be enormous, the only companies that could afford it are the ones which can't really benefit from going up. Software giants, car/oil companies, military suppliers. It just does not seem likely for a resource mining company to finance a jaunt into space even if there are seemingly limitless amounts of ore out there.
posted by nightchrome at 6:14 PM on May 1, 2005

The world telecommunications giants would sure like to place satellites in orbit for less money and on a more dependable basis than what is presently provided by government launches. Also there are a lot of research centers and third world countries that would be interested.
posted by Galileon at 6:40 PM on May 1, 2005

Of course, the biggest stumbling block that everyone has for these projects is..


We really can't export biofuels off the planet to power much of our space mining operations.
posted by Balisong at 7:02 PM on May 1, 2005

Well, yeah. Eventually. Like 3-4 hundred years maybe. Private space companies are just in the very fledgling stage right now. Most of them keep going from donations. People expect innovation from them, but not product. The whole space elevator thing is probably the most profitable route for making space profitable, and that's not really possible yet. Even that liftport company ( admits they're relying on breakthroughs in materials science. That's a possiblity, but not a sure thing.

Meanwhile, governments need to be in space, because like it or not, space is going to be militarized at some point or another. And no government thinks it's a good idea to be the last ones to do it. As it is now, things are pretty slow because we're the only ones doing it regularly. The Russian program is slowed to a crawl, so we're not racing anybody.

Besides, didn't GW say NASA was going to take us to mars in like 15 years or something? Funny, I haven't heard much about that lately......
posted by lumpenprole at 7:08 PM on May 1, 2005

Our efforts in space exploration are advancing far too slowly for most peoples' liking, I believe. We need to get our butts in gear, before people stop caring completely.
posted by nightchrome at 7:26 PM on May 1, 2005

No. Peak oil will end this silly idea that we'll travel the stars.
posted by McBain at 8:24 PM on May 1, 2005

Yes, and I don't think it's a bad thing.

I'm a firm believer that competition drives innovation - so in other words, the more folks competing for $$$, the more things relating to space travel that will be invented.
posted by tozturk at 8:31 PM on May 1, 2005

Competition? Isn't it basically impossible to do anything involving space without government permission?
posted by nightchrome at 8:33 PM on May 1, 2005

I do believe it's illegal to try to launch yourself into space..
I can't find the law right now, but I'll bet if you try it, someone will find it.
posted by Balisong at 8:39 PM on May 1, 2005

Illegal and very dangerous. There's a lot of junk floating around up there. Up to this point, we've been about as concerned with littering space as we have been with littering the earth. I'm not certain the tracking information for most of that debris is freely available without government assistance.
We really are the worst animal when it comes to fouling our own homes.
posted by nightchrome at 8:52 PM on May 1, 2005

Earth orbit up to geosynchronous, yes. Much beyond that, nope.

Most of the space program was like the nuclear power program -- spinoff and PR for essentially military programs.

The missile arms race is over, there is no need for massive government investment in space.

Besides, with the ex-Soviets essentially bankrupt and the US staring at massive deficits for the forseeable future, where's the money going to come from?

The US's interest in anti-missile development is two-fold. 1) the stated goal of a limited system to deal with axis-of-evil rogue states and 2) if the stupid thing ever looks like it might work, the US gets strategic hegemony and the ability to work nuclear blackmail against the entire globe.

We could do that, but it would be wrong. -- R. M. Nixon
posted by warbaby at 9:08 PM on May 1, 2005

NASA's '06 budget (request) is $16,456,000,000, and is payed for by 296,015,703 Americans. I don't see how a private organization is going to trump that, especially with 2% budget growth per year. Bill Gates would go flat broke in just three years.
posted by reflection at 9:48 PM on May 1, 2005

The thing to remember there is that a hefty portion of NASA's budget goes to complete crap which gets tacked on at the last minute and is totally unrelated to NASA or the things it attempts to do. There was an article recently about the use of NASA's budget as a method of financing so-called pork barrel projects.
posted by nightchrome at 10:09 PM on May 1, 2005

What a private company needs to be working on is finding an asteroid with enough iron, nickel, aluminum, etc., and parking it at a LaGrange point (or in a stable lunar orbit, maybe.) Once you have a huge mineral resource in a given location, you could perhaps raise money to build an orbital or even lunar foundry, refine the metal, and sell it to companies who want to build stuff in orbit. Here's a good candidate. Whoever snags that one will be farting through silk for as long as medical science can possibly keep one alive.
posted by trondant at 11:30 PM on May 1, 2005

It all boils down to money. NASA spends a great deal of money on the prospect of going into space, but there's not an equal amount or more of potential money out there, so far as we can see. The only reason America got colonized all the way to the Pacific was because someone spread a vicious rumor that there was actually an unlimited supply of gold in what we now call California. The only way we'll get private industries to thumb their nose at governments and spend billions of dollars in outer space is if they're led to believe something out there will satiate human greed.

The only reason why it's illegal to venture into space right now is cuz major corporations don't want just any pobucker weirdo with more money than brains build a spaceship and fly out into their precious field of satelite equipment. Corporate interests manipulate governments. If they ever found anything more valuable beyond that border, it would change everything, but not before.
posted by ZachsMind at 11:33 PM on May 1, 2005

Deep space exploration is going to stay a perpetual 10-15 years away, I think, for a good long time.

The government (politicians) are nearly as sensitive to return on investment as is the private sector -- the moonwalks and other accomplishments of the 1960s were only possible because the politicians were convinced we could get significant ancillary benefits for our aerospace industry and we could humiliate the Soviets in the eyes of the world.
posted by MattD at 5:40 AM on May 2, 2005

C'mon, private companies just don't have the resources to truly fake a moon landing.

NASA is a program that's in the public interest, and should continue to be publicly funded. And hell, I'd love for us to go to Mars. I just don't think that we'll be able to do that and keep two wars going at the same time...
posted by klangklangston at 6:10 AM on May 2, 2005

Not a chance - private companies have to answer to a board & investors.
posted by Pressed Rat at 6:32 AM on May 2, 2005

Narrator: When deep space exploration ramps up, it'll be the corporations that name everything, the IBM Stellar Sphere, the Microsoft Galaxy, Planet Starbucks.
posted by chime at 11:15 AM on May 2, 2005

It'll be cheap enough when we have mile tall mass drivers launching pods into space. Putting all that fuel inside the vehicle is kind of a waste.

We wouldn't want to use bio-fuels for space mining. You'd need either self-oxygenating fuels, nuclear powered or solar powered mining equipment
posted by BrotherCaine at 11:56 AM on May 2, 2005

All sci-fi aside, what makes anyone doubt that private companies will stop with space... In the future we will all work for THE company.
posted by indifferent at 5:01 PM on May 2, 2005

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