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The Path Not Taken

Published by Sigurd De Keyser on Wed Sep 8, 2004 6:57 pm
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By Rand Simberg, (via hobbyspace.com) On June 21, 2004, with thousands in attendance in the small southern California desert town of Mojave, a sexagenarian test pilot performed the first trip to space in a privately-built spacecraft. SpaceShipOne, as it is called, cost less than $30 million and was funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

Occurring seventeen months after the loss of the shuttle Columbia put America’s manned space program on hiatus, the SpaceShipOne flight received a surprising amount of publicity. The achievement, while impressive, was also limited: SpaceShipOne’s flight was only a suborbital test, roughly the equivalent of Alan Shepard’s historic suborbital flight in 1961. Surely, the technical achievement did not rival the achievements of NASA in its prime.

But NASA, clearly, is not in its prime, at least when it comes to manned space travel. Aside from a single American astronaut on the International Space Station, who only got there because he went up in a Russian capsule, NASA’s manned space program is currently on hold. It remains unclear when the shuttle will fly again, if ever. And so one of the reasons the flight of SpaceShipOne was so compelling was its contrast with NASA’s wounded, grounded shuttle fleet, and the fact that the entrepreneurs achieved this feat for far less money than NASA could.

And the contrast is telling. Unlike SpaceShipOne, a private venture born of competition and risk, NASA’s present space activities remain mired in institutions and thought patterns that are decades-old artifacts of the Cold War. The way NASA works is a historical contingency that could easily have manifested itself differently had we not been locked in a global confrontation with totalitarian communism. It is distinctly at odds with traditional American values of individualism and free enterprise.

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