Fly Me to the Moon

Private financiers battle government bureaucrats over the best way to explore the Great Beyond.


"Your children might go to the University of the Moon. At least that's my goal."

Not long ago, politicians pressing for lunar educational facilities might have limited their optimistic predictions to speaking engagements at your local Star Trek convention. How times have changed. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, made the allusion to Moon U. at a Tuesday hearing to discuss the future of "space tourism." The hearing came just one day after a high-profile Capitol Hill symposium on the same subject. Once confined to sci-fi novels and teenage imaginations, plans to commercialize the Great Beyond with everything from platinum mines to casinos have burst onto the corporate/political landscape. The rumblings in Washington this week only highlight the growing struggle that private interests will face in wresting control of the galactic frontier away from the NASA establishment.

Private sector complaints about NASA focus on the fact that more than 40 years after Sputnik and despite massive expenditures, the agency still has not provided cheap, reliable transportation to space. The Space Transportation Association (STA), an organization dedicated to increasing the private sector's role in space exploration, hosted approximately 100 industry players and interested onlookers for a daylong symposium amid congressional offices this Monday. T.F. Rogers, chief scientist for the STA, lamented that the aerospace industry had failed to take control. "We have yet to lay out a confident course that would see the economically creative destruction of our government-operated shuttle fleet," he said.

Not that people aren't trying. Eric Anderson, CEO of Space Adventures, told the symposium crowd that "it is our full intention to provide space travel using private vehicles and private financing and really create a private space exploration program." If it sounds like a pie-in-the-sky dream to you, consider that Anderson's company was instrumental in brokering the deal with Russia that made financier Dennis Tito the world's first "space tourist" earlier this year for a mere $20 million. Tito, CEO of Wilshire Associates, made headlines when he hitched a ride to the International Space Station—much to the dismay of NASA officials, who opposed the arrangement.

Tito clashed with W. Michael Hawes, NASA's deputy associate administrator for the space station, during Tuesday's congressional testimony. Tito, who just came back from the station six weeks ago, argued that there was plenty of room there for more scientists and cash-fat tourists who could help finance the program. Chairman Rohrabacher and committee member Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) were fascinated with the possibility of tapping rich industrialists to help pay for space exploration. Rep. David Weldon (R-Fla.) projected that if NASA could haul two tourists to space on every shuttle mission, the agency could pile up almost $500 million over five years, about 35 percent of the agency's projected cost overrun. "We're strapped for cash," Weldon said. "Why shouldn't we do it?"

Unfortunately, Hawes couldn't help the wide-eyed representatives with their financial calculations. It appears that no one is exactly sure how many people fit on the space station. He disputed Tito's claim that the station could support six people over the long term. He said budget constraints had forced the agency to cut capacity down to three astronauts, barely enough to conduct research. Tito claimed that he had detailed notes from his training in Russia claiming otherwise. Rohrabacher asked Hawes if he could get some clarification on the issue within 24 hours and got a qualified maybe. He also questioned why NASA would have agreed to a cut down to three astronauts if that was not enough to do any research—the station's supposed reason for being. Later, Weldon scolded NASA for failing to contact Tito for information about his flight and the prospect of future tourists. Hawes defended the agency, saying he had breakfast with Tito that morning. "I would suggest that six weeks [after the fact] is rather late," Weldon said.

Jim Benson, founder and CEO of SpaceDev, a publicly traded company that is forging ahead on space, said that NASA is behind on a lot of things. In a phone interview Wednesday, Benson, a longtime advocate of sensible property rights in space, called NASA a Cold War foreign policy tool ill-suited to commercial exploration. He said the agency now acts as a jobs program for the aerospace establishment. Benson says NASA tries to beat more money out of Congress by arguing: If you don't fund our cost overrun, the billions you already spent will have been wasted.

Happily, Benson views NASA as an irrelevant relic rather than an obstacle. He said the last frontier will open, but only when someone finds a way to make a few bucks off it. "If we want to go to space to stay," Benson said, "space will have to pay." Benson, who made his fortune as founder and president of Compusearch Software Systems and ImageFast, both in McLean, Virginia, thinks his new company will do just that. On the other hand, he avoids wild predictions about keg parties on Mars by 2010, a mistake some enthusiasts can't avoid. Benson thinks people with substantially less disposable income than Dennis Tito will be able to take sub-orbital trips at an altitude of about 65 miles within a few years. He said that should entail four to five minutes of free fall and weightlessness. That's not exactly college on the moon, but it's still pretty cool—as long as NASA lets it happen.