My dear Washington space establishment,
First of all, Happy New Year! I know there is never a good time for such things, but I am writing you this note because I care a lot about you. In fact I would even say I owe you for making me who I am today. You’ve been so great for me, especially when we first started our romance. Back then you were so bold, so vibrant and alive, but then you began to go in circles; you started spending our money on expensive toys that we ended up just throwing away, never stopping all the promises but never delivering what I really needed. Yet you also helped me grow up from being nothing, and now, well, now I’ve grown. I’m finding my own path. And while you have helped me so much, unless things change I am going to have to leave you. It doesn’t have to be that way. We can make it work. I know.
While recently you’ve wasted a lot of our time and spent most of our money on dead ends, I still have hopes for you. While anyone else might look at what you’ve done with our future — the lying, the smoke and mirrors, the way you would sometimes dress up our future so nicely and then go out and cheat on it with someone who only wanted our money — and walk away, I want to give it another go.
Just last fall you showed you could do the right thing, giving me what I need to be me, telling me I can go out there and do what I need to do and you will support me all the way. It gives me hope.
Call me a dreamer, but I think this relationship can be salvaged.
After all, it is a new year.
But while most are focused on what they will do in 2016, if we’re honest we both know you aren’t going to do anything new this year. Even as I move ahead.
That’s because a year from now America will have a new president, and as has been the custom, they will try to create their own Kennedy legacy by redefining space — and that means the only thing you will be doing until then will be to shore up your existing programs while awaiting new orders. This also means all bets are off when it comes to today’s flagship-level human space activities. And this time it will be a dramatic shift. Why? Because the Next Space Age has already begun, will not freeze, and by the time the new players get into office this will be so obvious as to make the continuation of any current course in space based on historic trajectories untenable. Call it disruption or what you will — by the end of this year, you in Washington will be facing a new space reality.
This isn’t black sky speculation. I am not prognosticating about some far-off may-when. It is happening now — and accelerating. Blue Origin and SpaceX have shown reusability from space (OK, Elon, you went to orbit and Bezos went to space), and others are on the flight line with varying levels of reusability — Virgin, Vulcan, Sierra Nevada and even Boeing. And that is just in the United States.
And of course thanks to hard work by a lot of folks in D.C., the pro-frontier U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015 is now law, including such important elements as laying the groundwork for a space resources industry. A year from now at least two space resource companies will be funded and flying experimental spacecraft in low Earth orbit as the first steps of a now legally sanctioned quest to mine asteroids.
The first commercial space modules will be in orbit soon too, perhaps attached to ISS, perhaps on their own, in either case presaging the era of private space facilities. These developments will put in place something we citizens have never had before: the ability to go to and from the frontier frequently and cheaply, places to go to when we go, and within a few years the ability to buy supplies, propellant and materials on location at the top of the gravity well.
Notice, while some of these activities are enabled by legislation and contracts, not one of these advances is coming from the government space program itself. Not one. We cannot argue their government-enabled heritage, of course, nor in many cases their fledgling dependency on NASA and Defense Department contracts. But we can argue the relevance of the government program to them, and to opening the frontier itself moving forward (or up) from after 2016.
This is both a threat and an opportunity.
The threat is that those who depend on and steer the state program — its political benefactors and beneficiaries — will continue working to keep the status quo by trying to starve and sabotage their own citizens’ work to innovate on the platforms created in the first Space Age — even as they assure their own irrelevance.
The opportunity is that the new president (any new president) recognizes the future he or she sees in the headlines, as these next space companies and teams pull off each new success, and restructures the national space program to support and enhance the ability of the children it created to build an incredible future in space.
This will of course mean winning over those who are right now pouring vast and unknowable amounts of funds into campaign coffers in order to keep the future from happening, and causing a shift in the core identity of our national space agency and its techno-political income production strategies.
But this is what must happen, for what today’s aerospace industrial machine is doing simply drags out the process of inevitable change, wastes billions and drains the vitality out of our most important and inspiring national activity — leading the opening of the greatest frontier in human history.
Of course, as is often the case in matters of dysfunctional relationships, the way forward is simple, common-sense-based, and only needs to be acted upon.
First, we must declare our shared goals. This began last winter in Washington with the Pioneering Space Declaration, when leaders from industry, government and the community agreed economic development and settlement are the goals of our national human spaceflight program — along with enabling exploration. The next administration and Congress must codify these goals.
Next, we must align plans and actions to goals. Government should support — and benefits from — economic development and settlement; it cannot “do” them. The oft-used analogy of building highways and supporting infrastructure — not driving the vehicles or the industry — fits. The government helped pave the on-ramp to space, now the vehicles taking us up to the space highway are being built by citizens leveraging off of government-catalyzed technologies and needs. The government should no longer compete in this area. It will fail.
You can get ahead of the curve, though, if you use your power and money to support the development of the intersolar highway system and infrastructure. Why not focus aerospace dollars and powerful space centers on design and construction of in-space tech, leveraging decades of experience and spending on projects from Apollo to the ISS? Imagine Boeing, Lockheed and Bigelow developing large cycling solar system class clipper ships to carry people and payloads to where they want to go and habitats to go to when they do. Bring in the teams at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who know how to land on Mars. Aerospace and NASA have years of experience in these realms; we have almost none — for now.
Let’s invest some of our money to help build an in situ infrastructure in space. Be it the multibillion-dollar satellite industry or voyagers to Mars and beyond, unless we learn to live off the land we will always only be visitors or wire stringers in a territory we do not inhabit or control. Gas stations, oases and construction depots need to be created, and the best way to do so fast is to offer to create a market by being an anchor customer.
Finally, and most importantly, you must understand the greater good here is served by releasing long-held beliefs and behavior based on a bygone era. The new reality is that NASA and its partners will probably not be the first to land on Mars in some Apollo-style aerospace industrial retro-dreamscape of a space program. It isn’t going to happen that way. We aren’t doing this to be your contractors, and these rich guys are just an early manifestation of us doing what you inspired us to do. We are the people, doing what you inspired us to do — so embrace it, embrace us. A new partnership with us can enable America to lead the opening of the frontier, but it will more resemble how we led the way into the age of communications than what happened 50 years ago on the moon. Let us do the heavy lifting our way. You support, enable, stay out of and help clear the way — as our champion. Then we all win. Science, exploration, settlement, security and most importantly hope and opportunity for generations to come — we can have them all with your help.
And so, my dear Washington, I hope you understand. Let’s use this next few months to talk to each other, to create a new understanding of our needs and how we can best help each other achieve our dreams.
I know you have always wanted what is best for me.
And you need to know that while I may seem a little wild at times, a little bit of a free spirit, I appreciate all you’ve done, and I want us to stay together. Let’s use this next year to build a new relationship. For if we do, if each of us is willing to listen to each other and apply our strengths rather than fight over our differences, we can work as a family to make the future better for the children — and after all, aren’t they what this is all about?
Rick Tumlinson is the co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation, Deep Space Industries and the Texas Space Alliance, and the founder of Orbital Outfitters, the EarthLight Foundation and New Worlds Institute.