Art courtesy of Mark Maxwell
Within a year or so we will begin to see the first commercial human spaceflight systems come online, and the first steps to opening space to the people of Earth will have been taken.
After more than 25 years of political trench warfare, reeducation and demonstration by a hardened band of space revolutionaries that we know what we are doing, we are at last beginning to transition the government-run command economy in human spaceflight into one shared with the private sector -- to the benefit of all.
Those on the front lines, on both sides, know just how tough a battle it continues to be. Yet we are seeing it happen, in many small ways and some that are highly visible, such as the berthing of the first U.S. commercial spacecraft from SpaceX and Orbital Sciences to the space station while companies like NanoRacks and Bigelow are using it to develop their own businesses -- while helping the agency do its job.
In fact, I recently walked away from the battle between those pushing for what I call the "Senate Launch System" (Congress' latest government megarocket) and those fighting to create a NewSpace commercial space transportation industry. After helping birth the baby of commercial spaceflight and then protecting it from those who felt threatened by its promise, the latter are now finding that it is not just beginning to stand on its own two feet but taking flight -- literally.
But this is (to steal a phrase) only one small step. To quote Robert Heinlein, "Once you get to Earth orbit, you are halfway to anywhere in the solar system." Well, I hereby leave the orbit part to others. I am focused on the anywhere.
For me the next job begins at that hundred-mile mark and includes banging some heads together in our own space community. As for right now, we are our own worst enemy. Be it those heading to the Moon, Mars or the space between worlds I call "free space," each of us seems to think ours is the only worthwhile goal. And of course we also each have our own favorite spacecraft, our own perfect solutions and systems and approaches, and everyone else be damned, because my way is the space highway.
We are like a group of maniacal subdivisions of a church -- all true believers, yet each with our own definition of heaven, our own way of getting there, and armed with ammo belts full of facts and PowerPoints that we can unleash on anyone who has the temerity to assume he or she has a viable idea, approach or destination worth considering. It has to stop or we will all face failure.
I know whereof I speak, as I have been guilty of doing just this (and if I may say so myself, I am pretty good at it). And while I am not suggesting some sort of awkward group geek hug, I am suggesting that right now is the time to find commonalities, areas of agreement, and, at least at the highest level, some sort of unity in what is, to me, clearly and easily the most important undertaking in the history of humanity -- if not life itself.
That may sound grandiose and overstated, but it isn't. And anyone reading this who "gets it" knows what I mean. Whether you work on or support the government Orion or the private Dragon spacecraft, the international space station or Bigelow's private space facilities, whether you spend your days in a Loral cleanroom or soldering a cubesat in your garage, whether you are a staffer in Washington or bring doughnuts for the local space society meeting, whether you are an astronaut or just nuts about astronomy, at some level you understand the import and possibility of what is out there -- or you wouldn't be doing what you are doing.
So let's for a moment put down our flags, quit stomping on each other's footprints and work on a unified vision that will support all of our dreams yet allow all of us to do our own thing, do it in our own way and go to those places we each want to go.
In the next year or two we have a huge opportunity, and we cannot blow it. Here's why I say this:
We are exactly between presidential elections, as close to a calm period as there might be in terms of politics.
The first citizens are about to start flying into space -- including many high-wealth, high-profile opinion makers.
American companies are at last about to bring the flying of astronauts back home to the United States from Russia.
The first credible humans-to-Mars plans are starting to weave together in public-private partnerships. In fact, I can say with some authority that this will also be the case in terms of the Moon and asteroids as well. As these megamissions and projects collide with budget realities, it is becoming clear that they must work together to achieve their own goals -- be it science, profit or building a new society.
Throw in pressures to respond to Chinese and Indian initiatives on the Moon and Mars and we have what is needed to do something important -- that is, if we don't blow it -- as we have done so many times before.
So what can we do to leverage these (and the many other opportunities I don't have room to list here) in a way that will enable us all to do this important work and at the same time realize our own dreams?
First, we must all agree that our goal is to explore and open the frontier of space to expand the domain of humanity and life. This, above all things, is the key to the next stage of opening space.
Second, we must create a shared core agenda to make this happen as quickly as possible, and not only as cheaply as possible but in a way that best leverages our investments in capital and taxes in terms of the amount of knowledge and wealth we return to Earth, and the chance for participation available to everyone, in this country and the world.
Then, we need to use the voices and volume once dedicated to pronouncing our own individual solutions to communicate this shared top-level set of goals and the basic agenda we agree upon to the rest of the world. We need to create a new conversation, not about where we go and how but about why it is important that we go at all, and how we all win if we do.
Look, I may be many things, but I am, by this time, not naive. I am not suggesting that battles between proponents of various destinations and technologies will end by sprinkling magic space dust over everyone. (Could that be a market?) Heck, that's what makes some of this fun. I am just suggesting that we agree to disagree on the details and destinations, base the winners on the merits, and focus on agreeing why we are doing this, and how we can all do it together so that everyone wins -- then selling that to the world.
So do we rise together or hang out there alone, under a canopy of stars we will never reach?