With this morning’s Shuttle landing, the era of NASA as we knew it officially draws to a close.
Sadly, the past forty years have forced us to bear witness to the devolution of what was once perhaps the government’s leanest, most efficient, and most successful (in terms of real accomplishment) programs.
NASA has become a perfect example of the folly of government agencies, specifically the fate of agencies whose mission is to solve a single problem — when they’ve accomplished their mission and more or less solved their problem, what do they do next? The bureaucratic mindset simply does not accommodate ideas like phase-outs and cutbacks for itself.
And so for the last four decades, NASA has become a parody of what it once was. Its contractors have long accepted the inevitable and, starting with the first successful Apollo moon landing in 1969, scaled back their space-based research and manufacturing. Shuttle contractors are going through the same painful process today. NASA may no longer have need for space capsules and J-2 rocket engines, but the narcissism and air of indispensability that permeate government bureaucracies remain as strong as ever.
As long as NASA’s role essentially remains “we have no idea what we are doing, but we’re IMPORTANT!” our best hope for space exploration lies with private endeavors. But I have to wonder, is the snail’s pace at which private spacecraft development has progressed during the past two decades the result of an ever-present fear of government regulation? Is private spacecraft development being held hostage by the fear that NASA will move to shut down any private space exploration effort that becomes “too” successful?
Perhaps, instead of trying to accommodate NASA or turn it into a multicultural outreach tool, our next Presidential administration should focus on encouraging private space exploration. Legislation that would allow private companies to build rockets and spacecraft without worrying about interference from NASA or other government agencies would be extremely beneficial to this end.
While we are spinning our wheels, other nations are developing rockets and space flight systems. There is no reason why America can’t be the world’s leader in space technologies, both today and into the foreseeable future. If we lose our edge, it will be nobody’s fault but our own.
ADDED: I just noticed that Rand Simberg published some similar thoughts a few days ago:
The end of the Shuttle program ends more than the Shuttle era. Historians in the future will note that it ended a false notion, one half a century old: that humanity would open up space through the application of command-economy government programs. The future, even the immediate future, of human spaceflight lies not with a single type of vehicle developed by and for a massive government bureaucracy, but with public/private partnerships that create a robust, competitive commercial spaceflight industry. This is the only practical way forward to close the gap between the end of the Shuttle and new domestic capability that will eliminate our reliance on the Russians.
Unfortunately, Congress, caring more about space pork than progress, continues to have other plans.
Read the whole thing.