Monday, July 19, 2010

Space Shuttle, it's dead, Jim.

This article in The New York Times got me thinking about the future of the US Space Program.  What will happen when Shuttle is mothballed?  For the first time in decades, the US will not have the ability to put a man in space.

I don't think I'm a Trekkie (at least I've never been to a convention!), but I am/was a huge fan of most things Star Trek.  I think like most engineers of my generation, I was influenced by Star Trek, and part of the reason I became an engineer was to contribute to advances in manned spaceflight.  I, and I think most engineers, took the best jobs we could find upon graduation, and for many, it was far away from the space program.  Still, my imagination goes into warp speed when I start thinking about exploring the stars and distant worlds!

So, what is the role of a space program?  Let's put aside for a moment national pride -- the type that fuels the current Chinese program, or the type of competition that fueled the US-Soviet programs for decades.

I see a space program as a key component of a nation's investment in basic science and technology.  In general, basic science is very risky (returns hugely uncertain), and so difficult to fund in the private sector.  Many initiatives in space require resources that only the federal government can muster.  A fan of small government, I would advocate a hybrid solution, with most of the actual government expenditures going to private companies.  What do you think?  Is the space program:

A.  Research into basic science and technology that fuels our imagination and improves our lives.


B.  A waste of taxpayer dollars.  Space programs will be developed by the private sector when there's a business motive to do so.

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