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Mir space station
While ultimately a failure, the spirit of entrepreneurship exhibited by those who tried to commercialize the Russian space station Mir is something NASA needs to take greater advantage of. (credit: NASA)

Cars versus rockets

As Detroit’s carmakers teeter on bankruptcy, the administration appears to be a whirling dervish as they attempt to set into motion solutions for the tsunami of issues that threaten to overrun not just Washington but the world. Detroit’s automotive industry is like a bad horror film: they are truly the walking dead. As a country should we continue to throw billions of dollars at the mummified corporate zombies? Should we spend our time, resources, and attention bandwidth on automotive industry life support, or would the country be better off focusing on those industries such as space technologies that represent the future of this country and all of mankind?

It is ironic that while the mission of NASA is inspiring and noble, NASA itself, like the Detroit automakers, is plagued by some basic and fundamental organizational issues. NASA has had many successes but is rightly criticized for being slow, wasteful, and unimaginative. Meanwhile, the space programs in other countries, such as China, have caught up with, and in some ways surpassed, our programs. The problems facing the US space program are not budget or technology but a woeful lack of leadership and pervasive political and bureaucratic dysfunction. In selecting NASA’s new administrator, President Obama can move decisively to regain America’s status as a global space powerhouse. How? By ensuring that the new NASA leadership is seriously committed to leveraging the power of private, commercial enterprise.

It is ironic that while the mission of NASA is inspiring and noble, NASA itself, like the Detroit automakers, is plagued by some basic and fundamental organizational issues.

The lesson from the collapse of the automotive industry is not that basic mechanisms of capitalism have failed. The lesson is that of shortsightedness, combined with unsustainable business practices and products that are destined for failure. The good news is that the administration is already started leveraging business and capitalism in certain critical areas. President Obama’s energy and environmental initiatives propose a comprehensive program of government support for the private researchers, entrepreneurs, and businesses that are needed to tackle these critical problems. Unfortunately, our government has not yet accepted the need for a similar model in space exploration and development: that government must support, not supplant, private enterprise.

I recently produced and directed a film titled Orphans of Apollo about what I believe is the greatest space story never told (see “Preview: Orphans of Apollo”, The Space Review, July 28, 2008). The film documents a small band of entrepreneurial rebels who “captured” the Russian Space Station Mir with American dollars and attempted the most ambitious space start-up business the Earth has ever seen.

Though it is a compelling story, Mir was deorbited eight years ago. What relevance does this story have today? First, the story of private American citizens attempting to commercialize an old Soviet space station turns out to be the perfect reflection, in a microcosm, of the entire space policy debate. Second, there are critical lessons about the value of bold, insightful leadership, and how a tiny group of individuals can make a dramatic impact.

The Apollo program inspired an entire generation to believe that their destiny was to live and work on the Moon. My film takes its name from a sentiment expressed by one of the participants in the Russian space station drama: “When President Nixon shut down the Apollo space program in 1972, we, the children of Apollo, felt like orphans of Apollo.”

The efforts of a small group of American businessmen and idealists to take control of the Russian Mir was a direct reaction to that feeling, the sense that we must continue to move toward the future that was promised by John F. Kennedy when he challenged the nation to do something great “because we can.”

Unfortunately, the attempt to keep Mir afloat as a commercial venture failed. Eight years ago Mir was intentionally deorbited, burning up over the South Pacific. NASA’s top official at the time was an outspoken critic of the plans to privatize Mir and keep it operational, and he was not sorry to witness its fiery demise.

Despite this dramatic setback, there remains a dedicated movement born of the Apollo age that does not accept the decision to abandon the Mir—a decision born out of nearsightedness and cowardice on the part of NASA’s past leaders. These revolutionaries of the New Space Age argue compellingly that the government simply cannot effectively implement a coherent and progressive vision for space exploration and commercial development for the years ahead. Government must harness the ingenuity of private individuals and private enterprise to achieve the critical mass and efficiency required to achieve our country’s national space goals.

Not much has changed in space since humans first walked on the Moon four decades ago. Shockingly, today we are talking about going back to the Moon. This must seem pathetic to the heroes of the Apollo generation. Current US policy calls for retiring the Space Shuttle next year, even though there is no existing American rocket capable of taking NASA astronauts into space. Instead we are planning on paying the Russians tens of millions of dollars for this privilege. It is an outrage and an embarrassment.

The new administrator should view NASA as a technology consumer instead of a technology producer. This is the most effective way to carve a new and innovative path to space.

President Obama has an opportunity to build on the lessons from Apollo, not to destroy them (as Nixon did) because of economic crisis and global instability. The Obama Administration has six months to get NASA’s leadership and support in place. If it fails, the US will have effectively handed over control of the heavens and one of the most important future industries to Russia, China, India, and other nations with rapidly evolving space programs. It is time for bold plans, for dynamic, results-oriented leadership, for a NASA administrator who is passionate about creating an organizational structure and private space industry that together can envision, implement and realize the benefits of an efficient, innovative and thriving space program.

I believe NASA could learn a lot about organizational structure and mission from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The new administrator should view NASA as a technology consumer instead of a technology producer. This is the most effective way to carve a new and innovative path to space. As taxpayers funding NASA, we should demand that the agency completely overhaul its way of doing business. It is time for NASA to leverage dollars and technologies through private enterprise, to view private firms as an aid and not a hindrance to our national goals. In the next decade, the greatest returns on investment are likely to be generated from those small and medium businesses that are the core drivers of the New Space Revolution.

The next NASA administrator must have the necessary critical leadership skills in order to make a rapid and dramatic impact. Let’s choose to invest in those technologies that represent the future of humanity, and let’s not get distracted by those activities, such as the old automotive industry, that only amount to transitional life support.

The dream to privatize Mir may have failed, but time will prove that it opened the door to a new way of thinking about enterprise in space. After all Obama himself is an “Orphan of Apollo.”