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Liberating NASA from the risks to people

by Esther Dyson

NEW YORK — People first landed on the Moon while I was a teenager. Decades later, space travel was still reserved for a small corps of astronauts and cosmonauts, and wealthy space tourists — six so far. The space business was the preserve of a few governments, plus large cost-plus contractors who lived in symbiosis with their government customers.

Space Adventures, a private company, arranges space tourist trips with Roskosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency, for upwards of $35 million a flight. I invested in Space Adventures and in XCOR Aerospace, a rocket maker.

I could see the glimmer of the energy that results when commercial startups invade a market dominated by large, established organizations. I wanted to know more about space travel and figured that six months of space training with Roskosmos, organized by Space Adventures, was the best way to get totally immersed.

After I returned, I had the opportunity to join the NASA Advisory Council, as chairman of its Technology and Innovation Committee. The Council has recently been shaken up, with its membership reduced from 50 to 10 and each member’s role clarified. However, the Council’s actual power is limited: NASA is told what to do — and is financed to do it — by the U.S. Congress. We can only advise on what Congress decrees and funds.

This shakeup reflects a shakeup at NASA itself, under new Administrator Charlie Bolden. It’s a huge opportunity for NASA as well as for space exploration and science. President Barack Obama has proposed a new budget for NASA that directs it to focus on longer-term goals, and adds another $6 billion over the next five years — at a time when almost every other agency faces budget cuts.

Over the past four decades, NASA has become so process-ridden and cautious — so responsible — that it has lost much of its energy and innovativeness. With almost every U.S. election cycle, it has endured funding cuts.

NASA has had two large and image-damaging space-shuttle accidents — the Challenger disaster of 1986, followed by the disintegration of the Columbia over Texas in 2003. These catastrophes stripped NASA of its appetite for risk. The astronauts themselves were eager to return to space, but the bureaucrats were unwilling to send them.

This is a persistent challenge for government agencies: They get hammered whenever something goes wrong. Governments are not supposed to kill people.

I’m not suggesting that private companies should be allowed to kill people, but they can take risks — with people who understand the risks — which governments cannot. They are also incentivized not to take risks; any startup space company that carelessly kills someone will probably also kill itself. But the industry will survive and prosper.

So, what does the new NASA budget do? And how is it relevant to other industries and other governments?

The new budget does two things: First, it acknowledges that the so-called Constellation project, which was focused on returning to the Moon, is behind schedule, over budget, and unambitious. So, Constellation has been canceled, though many of the specific projects and employees that comprised it will live on. The new budget will apply the freed-up funds and resources toward a still-to-be-defined program aimed at going beyond the Moon to asteroids, so-called near-Earth objects and, eventually, Mars.

Obama did not define the new goals tightly, leaving that up to NASA — a sensible and modest approach, but unfortunately a political mistake. It is never a good idea to replace something with vagueness. Politicians and lobbyists who care only about this year’s jobs and next year’s votes have jumped all over this lack of a plan.

Their scorn has also extended to the second part of the budget, a program that brings back to the U.S. the jobs that currently go to Russians. The budget proposes contracting with American startups to send astronauts and cargo to low-Earth orbit — mostly to the International Space Station. For the next few years, NASA will be buying those services from Roskosmos and sending astronauts up in Russian Soyuzes. After that, they will be buying from the likes of startups SpaceX and Orbital Sciences (and eventually, I hope, XCOR).

The government should focus on long-term, risky research — where the risk is to projects, not to people. The private sector should focus on delivering services that are already well understood and ready to be handled in a routine way.

The irony of American politics right now is that normally probusiness Republicans are those most hostile to NASA’s new budget — which espouses the values of entrepreneurship and innovation.

As a system, NASA is resistant to change, but inside there are thousands of people yearning to experiment and learn from both successes and failures. They want the liberation of a grand challenge.

Esther Dyson, chairman of EDventure Holdings, is an active investor in a variety of startups around the world. Her interests include information technology, health care and private aviation and space travel. © 2010 Project Syndicate