Even before President Bush officially announced the rebranding of NASA from sad-sack taxi service to visionary cosmic leader–the alternative space community was launching rejoinders to the president’s plan.
Some complained the Moon was a needless detour (On to Mars, direct!). Others wondered, given NASA’s recent technical difficulties, whether the agency could even manage a lunar landing. A third group gave the plan a tentative thumbs-up. “It’s certainly the most significant announcement since JFK’s four decades ago,” said SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.
The plan’s mix of robotic and human exploration made it palatable both to the aggressively settlement-minded Mars Society and to the gentler, advocacy-oriented Planetary Society. But that very all-things-to-all-people comprehensiveness, when contrasted with the tiny allotted budget, sparked speculation that Bush was just blowing election-year smoke. To the most radical alt spacers, however, it was a moot point. “Whatever NASA does or does not do,” Rick Tumlinson of the Space Frontier Foundation testified to Congress following the announcement, “this (private) community… will open up the space frontier in its own way.”
Moderates argue that the solution isn’t cutting NASA out of the loop. Greg Klerkx, whose new book, Lost in Space, is becoming the On the Road of the alternative space tribe, suggested in a recent New York Times op-ed piece that the agency just needs to become less elitist. Instead of hogging the Mars initiative, NASA should give private rocketeers a role, by providing financial incentives to those who prove able to create fast, cheap access to low Earth orbit. Referring to the public at large, and would-be space tourists in particular, Klerkx wrote: “Now the agency needs to allow the rest of us to participate.”