Under NASA's Commercial Crew Program, the Demo-2 mission is a milestone aimed at proving SpaceX can send humans safely to space. USA TODAY

NASA should enable the private enterprise revolution. Let's see what it can do, rather than going back to big rockets and Big Government: Our view


If all goes according to plan and the weather permits, two U.S. astronauts will head to the International Space Station on Wednesday aboard a rocket built by SpaceX, the company started by maverick entrepreneur Elon Musk.

In the history of space exploration, it's a significant moment. This would be the first time that people have gone into orbit on a private rocket. And it would be the first time since NASA officially ended its 30-year space shuttle program in 2011 that it has sent Americans on anything other than a Russian rocket. 

The mission is a testament to America’s entrepreneurial culture. It is also an example of necessity being the mother of invention.

NASA has long been thought of as a cutting-edge institution. But it is actually one of the most ponderous agencies in government, possessing a keen sense of entitlement to taxpayer funding.

Shuttles, space station called mistakes

Its two main human space projects after the hugely successful Apollo program — the shuttle and the space station — would have to be called disappointments. In 2005, in a meeting with USA TODAY's Editorial Board, NASA’s then-Administrator Michael Griffin went so far as to call them mistakes.

NASA: We’re going back to the moon, and beyond

Compounding NASA's woes, it couldn't come up with a shuttle replacement that made sense and had a reasonable price tag, leaving American astronauts to hitch rides on Russian rockets.

Rather than being a problem, however, this void turned out to be a blessing in disguise. NASA, which once saw private space companies as a threat to its bureaucracy, began looking at them as better than relying on Russia. It began contracting out robotic servicing missions, and ultimately human launches. 

This, in turn, helped stimulate a new age in entrepreneurial space flight. Private companies not only jumped into the NASA contracting business, they also started reinventing much of the space business centered around satellites and rockets to launch those satellites. Some dabbled in space tourism, and SpaceX — arguably the most innovative of these companies — even says it can support an entirely private human space business independent of NASA.

'Comically big moon rocket'

With all this happening, you'd think that NASA would tailor its mission to this exciting new reality.

Actually, it is doing the opposite. NASA's top priority is a rush program to return astronauts to the moon by 2024, which would be — just coincidentally — the last year of President Donald Trump’s administration should he be reelected.

While pieces of this program would be contracted out, its centerpiece is something called the Space Launch System, an enormous launch vehicle that would empower an enormous bureaucracy. Popular Mechanics dubs it NASA’s “comically big moon rocket.”

The SLS, as it is called, is way over budget. Of course it is. Near term, its mission is to do what NASA has already done five decades ago, by getting astronauts to the moon. But its real purpose is to support and rationalize big government-run space exploration. Once operational, the argument will be: We have this enormous rocket, we have to use it. We have to keep going to the moon. We have to get to Mars. 

A better approach for NASA would be as an enabler of the revolution. Private enterprise is changing the economics and technology of robotic space, and it just might be able to bring the cost of human space down to the level where it can go beyond token efforts. Let's see what it can do, rather than going back to big rockets and Big Government.

USA TODAY's editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff. Most editorials are coupled with an opposing view — a unique USA TODAY feature.

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