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A Heavenly Salute to the Columbia 7

By Otis Port The tragic events of Feb. 1 remind everyone once again that venturing into space is fraught with danger -- and that the men and women who bravely chose to become astronauts, knowing the inherent risks, are a special breed. NASA will now try to isolate the cause of the Columbia disaster and fix it. But some space hands believe the sacrifice of the Columbia 7 -- Michael Anderson, Dave Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, Rick Husband, William McCool, and Ilan Ramon -- deserves more. They want to pay tribute to the Columbia's crew by overhauling not just the space shuttle but the space program itself.

In the view of these visionaries, it's time for NASA to pass its routine operations -- at least between here and the moon -- to private industry. The space agency, they say, should then shift its focus to probing the far heavens with both manned and robotic trips. A top-level goal should be exploring Mars and other planets, with a mission to establish permanent settlements.

"I believe very strongly that humanity needs to get off this planet and work and play in space -- and eventually populate other locales in the solar system," says James W. Benson, founder and CEO of SpaceDev Inc. in Poway, Calif. "We need to do that if only to protect the human species from extinction on earth, should some untoward global catastrophe happen here."

FOLLOWING T. REX. Far-fetched thinking? You might not realize it, but most space scientists agree that the earth will get hit by another giant asteroid eventually. It might be massive enough to wipe out all higher life forms on land. Such a cataclysm probably terminated the reign of dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Another such blow may not come for thousands of years -- or it could happen this century.

Meanwhile, more mundane business opportunities beckon: mining the moon's resources for materials and energy, building lunar factories, and ferrying tourists into orbit (see BW Online, 2/5/03, "Slow Down the Space Race? No Way"). "Tourism is something that's definitely going to happen at some point," says Space Foundation President Elliot G. Pulham.

Surveys show that lots of people are eager to go into space, he says -- although not for the $20 million that American Dennis Tito paid to be launched by the Russians. But if the cost of a space jaunt were trimmed to $100,000, "the market would really open up," according to the surveys.

ORBITING WINNEBEGO. Space tourism and other off-planet businesses will require much cheaper and much more frequent access to space. NASA has been trying for two decades to slash the $500 million cost of its launches. Its latest effort is the orbital space plane now being developed.

Originally conceived as a bantam shuttle, the space plane was designed to be just big enough to deliver a new crew and supplies to the International Space Station. "But it's already starting to get larger and more complicated, more like today's shuttle," complains Henry R. Vanderbilt, executive director of Space Access Society in Phoenix. "Unfortunately, NASA's tendency is to guild the lilly," he notes. "That's why the shuttle is like an 18-wheeler with a Winnebego cabin and a crane, all rolled into one."

Instead of one alternative to the aging space shuttle, America needs several new launch vehicles tailored for different tasks, says Rick N. Tumlinson, president of Space Frontier Foundation in Nyack, N.Y. And why not let private enterprise take the lead? "Right now," he says, "the shuttle is a government trucking service to the space station -- and yes, it's dangerous. But does it need to be this dangerous? I don't think so."

"SEVERE DARWINISM." Making hops into orbit less risky, Tumlinson and the others agree, has a simple solution: privatize the most inner outer space. Bringing private-sector competition into the space program would improve safety, he says, because in the business world, "there's very severe Darwinism in play. If any commercial carrier's craft fell out of sky every 50 flights or so, they just wouldn't survive very long."

With four or five different vehicles competing for space business, Tumlinson predicts, "costs would start plummeting, and we'd see all sorts of entrepreneurial activity going on," including $20,000 tickets for a 65-mile-high roller-coaster ride.

Besides, making routine trips to the space station is a serious waste of talent, Tumlinson argues: "NASA's highly trained astronauts should be heading for Mars and beyond." He considers astronauts to be explorers like Lewis and Clark -- blazing new trails, exploring the unknown. And the moon is pretty much the equivalent of the U.S. east of the Mississippi at the beginning of the 19th century. The trailblazing is essentially done.

THE NEXT NET? "We want to see settlers and shopkeepers begin to turn the explored areas into domains of commerce and culture," he says. "So NASA should get out of orbital operations, hand that to the private sector, and get back to the job of expanding our horizons. Every astronaut would give his or her teeth to go to Mars and look over the canyon walls at the Valles Marineris," an immense Martian chasm that dwarfs the Grand Canyon.

Extend into space the kind of private-public partnership that now serves the aviation industry, says SpaceDev's Benson, and the result could be an economic boom similar to that unleashed by the Internet. The Pentagon nurtured the underlying technologies that spawned the Web. But it soon stepped aside, allowing the private sector to dream up new applications.

And the world continues to reap enormous riches from access to vast amounts of information and online services. People forget today that the World Wide Web, initially dubbed Arpanet by the Pentagon, was born in 1969, the same year that Apollo 11's Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. The dramatic contrast in progress since then between the Internet, which has shown explosive growth, and the space program, which has shrunk, bears eloquent testimony to the value of private-sector competition.

X-PRIZE RACE. The major hurdle to exploiting commercial space, of course, is the investment required. But free NASA from the chore of running a trucking service to the space station, and it might be able to plow some money into collaborative development with industry of new, cheaper launch vehicles.

For now, the X Prize Foundation, headed by St. Louis physician Dr. Peter H. Diamandis, is providing an entrepreneurial incentive -- a $10 million prize to the first private team that can launch a spacecraft carrying three or more people to a height of at least 62 miles and then repeat the process within two weeks. Two dozen teams from seven countries have already signed up, and a winner is expected to claim the $10 million within two years.

The X Prize entries aren't attempting to solve the really knotty problems facing a new generation of space vehicles, in particular, a better reentry heat shield to replace the shuttle's tiles. However, Benson of SpaceDev is optimistic that "in the near term, some exotic new material may provide the answer, because we've just got to get away from tiles." By then, the X Prize competition will have ended, and Vanderbilt of Space Access hopes that "a half-dozen teams will be in good shape, ready to tackle a next-stage spacecraft."

Curiosity and an innate desire to explore new realms will always be part of human nature. So the venture into space must continue. The cost will be a worthwhile investment to inspire new dreams among tomorrow's kids -- and provide an insurance policy against the destruction of an earth-bound human race. If the latest shuttle tragedy prods America to revamp the space program by injecting private-sector competition to help spread human culture into space sooner and more cheaply, that would pay eternal homage to the Columbia 7. Port covers the technology of space science for BusinessWeek from New York

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