Friday 23/03/2018 - 01:37 am

Get NASA out of the rocket business

2018.02.27 02:55

Three great constants in life are death, taxes — and the costly rocket program that NASA always seems to have under development.

NASAs current rocket of the future is called the Space Launch System. It is a heavy-lift vehicle that replaced a similar program called Constellation proposed by the Bush administration.

Both are quite a bit like the National Launch System of the 1990s. And all have a distinct similarity to a rocket that once actually existed — the Saturn V used in the Apollo program.

OPPOSING VIEW: Don’t abandon NASA-led legacy systems

In addition to these brawny rockets, the space agency has, at different times, toiled on various smaller, futuristic rocket planes such as the X-30 (also known as the National Aerospace Plane) and the X-33.

None of these prior programs, heavy lift or otherwise, got anywhere near liftoff. Their price tags were hefty, and their mission costs would have been even heftier.

Now, the same fate likely awaits the Space Launch System. It fails to answer the overarching, existential question: Why?

President Trump rejiggered the systems mission in December to focus on returning astronauts to the moon, something that would be both hugely expensive and highly repetitive.

But the story need not end there, with history repeating itself and the space program orbiting back to where it was before.

As government flails, private-sector space entrepreneurs have been notching some notable successes. Chief among them is Elon Musk, whose SpaceX company is known for  a recent demo flight that put a Tesla Roadster in space. SpaceX has a family of rockets that could slash the cost of satellite launches and then, or so Musk says, go on to support a rigorous human space program.

It’s not a far-fetched idea. In fact, he makes a compelling case that NASA should get out of the rocket business entirely and let the private sector go to work.

If human space exploration is ever to get beyond occasional, expensive, symbolic and largely uninspiring flights, it won’t be from reinventing the wheel (or the heavy lift rocket). It will be because the costs of launches and space travel are brought down significantly.

That’s a big ask given the inherent dangers involved. But it might be possible by piggy-backing on the private sector — by identifying goals and then inviting companies to devise ways to attain them, and by putting astronauts on rockets developed to launch satellites.

To some degree, NASA is already doing this. Unable to develop a shuttle replacement before its retirement in 2011, the agency has been contracting out cargo flights to the International Space Station.

But NASA, the Trump administration and a good many in Congress are still keen on the Space Launch System, a big rocket that only bureaucracy and Big Government could love.

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