Space questions remain

Space questions remain

November 12th, 2012 in Opinion Times

Given the high-decibel, media-hogging last days of a bitter presidential campaign and the breathless accounts of a superstorm heading toward a collision with the nation's populous Northeast corridor, it's hardly a surprise that the successful completion of the United States' first private cargo mission to the International Space Station late last month received scant notice. Still, as Arthur Miller memorably wrote in a different context, "Attention must be paid."

The success of the unmanned mission -- which ferried vital supplies to the space station and brought back almost a ton of material on its return voyage to Earth -- obviously signals a new era in space for the United States. It proves, for the moment at least, that a private company can do the work formerly done by a government agency at a cost that most agree is measurably lower. In tough economic times, there's something to be said for that.

Indeed, some officials in and outside of government already believe the successful mission validates the White House's decision to privatize the job of transporting cargo to and from space. That's rushing to judgment. One completed mission does not a successful program make.

More time is needed to render a verdict on the wisdom of contracting vital space missions to the private sector. Indeed, the just-ended mission had a couple of glitches. SpaceX, the company with a $1.6 billion NASA contract to fly a total of 12 cargo missions to the space station, still must prove that it can deliver the goods in the prescribed manner on a consistent basis. Time will tell if it is able to do so.

Even if it proved capable of doing so over the length of the contract, last month's successful mission should not end discussion of a long-term federal role in space exploration. There will come a time when the need for investment in new technology -- for deep-space exploration, for example -- will outstrip the ability of private equity companies that have to answer to investors more interested in short-term profits than long-term national interests.

Such long-term capital investment often requires government participation. Public funds, it should be noted, underwrote the mind-boggling missions that have made the United States the global leader in space technology and exploration.

For the moment, though, SpaceX seems on course to prove that a private company using public investment can engage in work that reduces the burden on taxpayers. It has hired enough workers and paid for enough services to somewhat ease the fallout from NASA cutbacks at Cape Canaveral and elsewhere along the nation's Space Coast. That's beneficial for Florida and partially answers short-term questions about how the role of private firms in future space projects.

One pressing question, though, requires attention. That is whether or not privatization is a long-term answer to funding all U.S. space endeavors in a post-shuttle world. Taxpayers, public officials and private investors likely will have to wait a bit for a response.