TCS Daily

Opening an Age of Adventure?

By Charles Matthew Rousseaux - October 14, 2004 12:00 AM

"This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius, the age of Aquarius"

It has been more than three decades since that era of Hair-raising silliness has passed. The tie-dyes to die for (if they don't kill you on first glance) have been exiled to episodes of "That 70's Show" and "Those Anti-Globalization Protests."

Yet something is happening, something is in the air, which hasn't been there since that largely unfortunate era ended. No, it is not collars so wide that they've actually gone airborne. Rather, it is SpaceshipOne, riding into space on the wings of desire. It is an invigorated exploratory imperative, and the renewed expectation in the realization of space dreams.

The winning of the X Prize by Burt Rutan, Paul Allen and others is the surest sign that the long period of manned space travail might be turning towards an amazing period of space travel. No civilian had ever won astronauts wings before this year. Now, a civilian team has proved that privately financed manned space fights are not merely possible, but that they can be done in unprecedented turnaround times.

It could be the start of a pattern. Paul Allen, who put up more than $20 million of his Microsoft money to get a space operating system, made a large part of his investment back when SpaceshipOne stuck its second X Prize landing. He still might make a profit on the venture, thanks to the licensing agreement he made with Richard Branson.

The British billionaire recently announced that he will invest about $100 million to build several passenger craft based on Mr. Rutan's design. Virgin Galactic expects to begin taking passengers on paying flights into space by 2007. While the flights are expected to cost $200,000 apiece initially, Mr. Branson hopes to drive down the costs of taking people up. He expects to launch 3,000 Virgin astronauts over the next five years.

There are other serious people, used to making serious money, now making serious space investments. For instance, civilians take a zero gravity ride aboard a modified airplane for the comparatively paltry $3,000, thanks to the X Prize Foundation and the Zero Gravity Corp.

Robert Bigelow, head of Bigelow Aerospace, recently announced that he would put $25 million of his own money towards the $50 million purse of America's Space Prize. The prize will be awarded to the team that builds an orbital vehicle that will carry up to seven adventurers to an outpost in orbit.

The government is also showing some signs of the new space spirit. While the new adventurers are understandably wary of bureaucratic boondoggles, administrators and lawmakers can -- and should -- add thrust.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) did well to license the X Prize flights. Even better, shortly after SpaceShipOne landed its winning flight, FAA administrator Marion Blakley declared, "We do see this as the frontier for transportation around the world. We know there will be risks, but those are risks worth taking."

NASA is no longer on a mission to make more circles in low earth orbit, thanks to the President's still misunderestimated space vision. Administrator Sean O'Keefe is pushing ahead with it, and looking to both the public and private sectors for innovation and inspiration. Rather than worry about potential competition, the administrator praised the "spirit of innovation" of Mr. Rutan's team. Mr. O'Keefe is setting up a series of Centennial Challenges similar to the X Prize, and looking for similarly out of this world (had to come somewhere) results. He has even permitted the posting of a series of essays on the NASA website by NASA Chief Historian Steven J. Dick, on the historical and national imperative of space exploration.

NASA is hitting both the books and the blueprints. This past September the space agency awarded its first contracts for the study of preliminary concepts for human lunar exploration and for the development of the crew exploration vehicle.

Congress should continue to support NASA's outward reach by supplying fiscal fuel. Although the House cut NASA's budget, the Senate appropriations committee showed a great deal of sense by adding $800 million in emergency funding to NASA. It trimmed funding for the International Space Station by about $120 million but included $268 million for the space exploration vehicle.

That sense of the Senate has not extended to legislation clarifying the role of government in, and encouraging the development of, sub-orbital flights and other commercial space ventures. Both the House and the Senate have bills on the subject, but the House version contains a number of provisions that the Senate bill does not. For instance, the House legislation -- sponsored by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher -- codifies the FAA's office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) as the regulator of sub-orbital flights. It also allows and encourages the AST to issue experimental permits for those flights.

Lawmakers can add thrust in other ways as well. A regularized regulatory environment will allow investors to continue to spend with certainty on manned space flights. An economy rising on sinking taxes will give consumers more fiscal power -- which they can burn on rocket rides.

America is again on the verge of something extraordinary in space. The opportunity must not again be lost. This nation of adventurers must continue to push outwards, upwards.

We may truly be on the edge new era -- a New Age, without the nuttiness or the fearful fashions.

Charles Rousseaux is the speechwriter for Interior Secretary Gale Norton. The far-out views expressed are his own.


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