“The reason I called you here is, we’re not winning, folks,”Rick Tumlinson said. Founder of the scrappy Space Frontier Foundation, a group that’s dedicated to getting humans off planet Earth, Tumlinson had arranged this emergency meeting of members of the “alternative space agenda” just weeks after the disintegration of space shuttle Columbia.
Scanning the crowd gathered at the Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles, he fixed his eyes on the contingent from the Mars Society. “How’s your Mars initiative going?” he asked, lacing every word with provocation. “How’s that workin’ for ya?” He looked over at a guy trying to raise money for a private space firm. “The bucks are just pouring through the door, aren’t they?” He shot a glance at the folks managing the X Prize, a $10 million award promised to the first private group that builds a reusable spacecraft. “That was real easy to fund, now, wasn’t it?”
When Columbia scattered its scorched entrails across Texas, it was a tragedy, to be sure, but also a potential turning point. NASA’s manned space program lay in chaos. The plan this weekend was to seize the moment and draft some policy points that could be plunked down on a table in Washington, that might spark a mind-shift to a more exciting vision—hell, any vision—for the exploration and eventual settlement of space.
The banquet-room crowd was the sort you might call ragtag if it didn’t include people who could buy your family a hundred times over and sell them for parts. There were rocket-company CEOs and private investors worth millions, as well as astronauts public and private—Buzz Aldrin, Rick Searfoss, Dennis Tito. There were gadflies, dreamers and would-be space tourists, including a couple who planned to consummate in space and had already been to Russia for medical exams.
No one from NASA or the aerospace giants—Boeing, Lockheed Martin and the like—had been invited. Their perspective was already known, and besides, NASA administrators were busy with their own soul-searching. The panel investigating the Columbia disaster would soon come down on NASA, railing at its
Ten months after Tumlinson’s meeting, NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers would land on Mars, eliciting a triumphant “We’re back!” from NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe, and President Bush would outline an ambitious plan to return to the Moon, potentially as an interim step to Mars. But while those developments would generally be welcomed by the alternative space crowd, questions lingered. Was this just political grandstanding? Where were the technical details? The funding?
The people at Tumlinson’s meeting yearned for the era when NASA set lofty goals such as the Apollo missions and beat the deadline to achieve them, when PanAm was taking bookings for space-liner trips to the Moon. To the people in this room, NASA had come to stand for No Americans in Space at All. It was time for a change. And regardless of what kind of rhetoric happened to be emanating from Washington, the solution, all agreed, was to take matters into their own hands.
Discontent has long crackled on the fringes of NASA. Some enthusiasts view the predicament of terrestrial life as a little like what the writer Nick Hornby has said Bruce Springsteen’s songs are all about: You can stay and rot, or you can escape and burn. What you can’t do is stand still. Self-destruction—by bioterrorism, nuclear holocaust, ozone depletion—looms, many believe, as an alternative to the natural event—asteroid collision, ice age—that will eventually do us in. (In his latest book, British cosmologist Martin Rees, a Cassandra with unsettlingly sterling credentials, puts our chances of making it through another century at fifty-fifty.) Bet-hedgers call for “species redundancy”: creating human outposts in space so that we will survive even if Earth doesn’t. “What does it cost to have an insurance policy?” asks Elon Musk, head of the orbital launch company SpaceX. “If it’s 1 percent of our annual economy, isn’t that money well spent?”
Private enterprise is the best way to get to space. NASA still has its place, in an adminsitrative role and as the proponets of purely scientific space exploration ( like the 'Saganites',they would be in charge of things like space telescopes, all the scienctific probes to the outer planets,SETI,the search for dark matter in the universe, thing like that), while the actual commercial developement of space ( lunar and asteroid mines, solar power stations, etc) would be in the provence of private enterprise, liek most of the corporations and individuals discussed in this article.