Public vs. Private Feasibility Confusion

One of the biggest overarching problems in space exploration is a misplaced sense of where the Tinfoil Hat Line should lie relative to different applications.  Specifically, much of NASA’s activity and spending lies far to the safe and plausible side of the TFHL, while many private companies field proposals and businesses plans that are awesome on paper, but don’t have a clear path to success.

Some recent news that illustrates the division between NASA and industry around the TFHL:

The private company Golden Spike, proposing commercial flights to the moon by 2020, has launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise “one dollar for each mile to the moon.” This combination of space exploration, private enterprise, and crowdfunding is awesome in concept, and may cause optimists to shout “a new business model!” However, the actual amount of money that would be raised even if the project reached its goal is orders of magnitude below the amount that is actually necessary to do anything useful.  This fact sadly relegates the campaign to a publicity stunt along the lines of the standard excellent computer graphics and leaves the whole plan in the realm of “extremely cool, but very likely overambitious and lacking substance.”

In direct contrast to gung –ho private companies, NASA has proudly announced that the Orion crew capsule – which will serve a very similar purpose to Golden Spike technology and is essentially a high tech upgrade of the Apollo capsule of the 1970’s – could fly a manned mission “as soon as 2021.” One year after Golden Spike wants to get to the moon with technology built almost from scratch.  Now, I have little doubt that, assuming funding remains consistent (more on this later,) NASA can reach this goal, which is far on the safe side of the TFHL.

A second example of the conservative nature embedded in many of NASA’s missions is the next big planetary lander mission, slated for 2020 (apparently this decade is just too soon for anybody, NASA or not.) Where is the target you may ask? Europa, to investigate liquid water? Perhaps Phobos or Deimos to scout for a staging point for manned mars missions? Nope – the target is Mars, to look at its rocks and soil. A revolutionary mission indeed.

Note that much of the risk aversion in the NASA agenda does not originate internally, but is dictated from on high by congress and the presidency. Which of course raises questions regarding having 536 of the most risk averse individuals in the country dictating the policy of an organization who’s purpose is to push the limits of possibility.

This isn’t to say that NASA plans shouldn’t be feasible, nor that private enterprise shouldn’t attempt anything that pushes the boundaries of possibility. Rather, I would argue that the perception of where along the feasibility continuum their activities should fall needs to take an almost 180 degree turn.  Now that I’ve established this contrast, further posts will go into my how’s and why’s of such a change.

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