Posts Tagged Project Mercury

Space: Whose final frontier?

SpaceX Falcon 9 launchSpace may be the final frontier, but it’s already commercial. SpaceX’s privately launched capsule began its journey to the International Space Station on Tuesday, becoming the first of its kind. Space exploration started out as the mother of all public-private partnerships but, at least in the United States, the private sector seems to be leaving the government behind.

Seeing someone take an interest in space exploration is encouraging, but it’s just not the same without NASA taking the lead. Some might say that it doesn’t matter: if the private sector can do something better than the government, why waste taxpayers’ money? The ends should be the most important goal, so as long as someone is going into space, it should not matter whether they are a government agency or a private corporation.

SpaceX seems like a major change in the way we explore space, but private companies have been involved from the beginning. Who do you think built the rockets? NASA may have run all previous space missions but, like any other government project, the hardware was produced by the private sector. The Redstone booster that launched America’s first astronauts was built by Chrysler; the Mercury capsule was built by McDonnell.

So why not cut out the middleman? Couldn’t private interests use their own resources more effectively? Not really. SpaceX will continue doing what it does as long as Elon Musk and his small cadre of investors have money to pour into it, and are still interested in going into space.

That is why government involvement in space is so important. Where private companies only have their investors’ interests in mind, governments have an entire nation’s. SpaceX has shown what a small company full of dedicated techies can do, but imagine what several corporations, striving toward one goal, could do. At one time, such a collaboration was able to get men to the Moon.

There is also the matter of money. In the end, private corporations need to turn a profit in order to exist, and sometimes that takes precedent over everything else. The future depicted in Star Trek is very appealing, but what corporation would want to fund Starfleet? Will space travel be more like the universe of Alien, where the Weyland-Yutani Corporation only operates spaceships for the sake of harvesting otherworldly resources?

Launching privately-operated spacecraft is better than not launching any, but mankind should not settle. The United States should go into space on its on terms, not the terms of a handful of wealthy investors. Government leadership and private resources has worked so far, there is no reason why private interests need to go it alone now. A lack of conviction is no reason to trade the Enterprise for the Nostromo.

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Fifty years after John Glenn’s flight, how far have we come?

Friendship 7Fifty years ago Monday, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. His flight was the product of Cold War paranoia, a “Space Race” that was part scientific endeavor, part arms race, and part national ego trip. Who would have thought that, 50 years later, the flight of Friendship 7 would be viewed as a quaint historical episode?

In 2012, the Cold War is long over and the Space Race has been nicely compartmentalized within it. In some ways, the American space program is worse off than it was in the early ‘60s: since the retirement of the Space Shuttle, Americans have been hitching rides on Russian spacecraft. How’s that for irony?

When my high school history class finally got to the 1960s, the teacher decided to skip over the Space Race because, he claimed, it had no greater relevance. It is easy to see his point: space exploration sprung out of the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, and didn’t really develop after the two sides resolved their differences. Now, the Cold War seems almost nostalgic in an era of terrorism and globalization.

Nonetheless, space could still be an important part of American policy, if people were willing to invest the time and money that they did in the ‘60s. The Mercury and Apollo programs were triumphs of public-private partnership: the government provided the cash and oversight, private contractors provided the tools and skills. NASA told McDonnell that they needed a capsule for John Glenn and the other astronauts to ride; McDonnell built Friendship 7.

Wouldn’t a project like that be valuable today? The space program created jobs and made America a world leader in science, two things the U.S. needs to happen again. Project Mercury showed what can happen when everyone, government officials and private contractors, liberals and conservatives, work together in a single, national, effort.

Instead of bickering about how money is spent or complaining that one’s rights are being infringed upon every time we don’t like a new law, Americans need to focus on the bigger picture. Everyone looked up when John Glenn took off 50 years ago; who will replace him?

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