The successful first mission of SpaceX's Dragon supply module has reignited a curmudgeonly contretemps: Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan – commanders, respectively, of Apollos 11 and 17 – have no kind words for private space startups, and NASA's first flight director indirectly blames companies like SpaceX for the decline of the United States.
The former astronauts showed their years in 2011 House testimony, but SpaceX founder Elon Musk had a chance to discuss Armstrong and Cernan's skepticism of commercial spaceflight recently with the Tiffany Network's 60 Minutes:
"I was very sad to see that because those guys are heroes of mine," Musk said. "It's really tough. I wish they would come and visit, and see the hardware we're doing here. And I think that would change their mind."
Original NASA flight director Chris Kraft fuels the oxygen-deprived flames with a testy response to Houston Chronicle SciGuy Eric Berger.
"What we (The past leaders of the U.S. Space Program) are concerned about," writes Kraft, "is the lack of recognition that unless the U.S. continues to advance the state of the art and invest the taxpayers money in a rational and affordable Space Program we will become a second rate nation and be left behind by those who recognize what is required."
Berger got some interesting comments from Cernan last year. These include a credible critique of the private space business model:
I'd like to hear all these folks who call themselves commercial space tell me who their investors are. Tell me where their marketplace is. A commercial venture is supposed to use private money. And who are their users? Suppose we, NASA, have no need for their services. There's no other marketplace for them.
But it turns out Cernan isn't opposed to pork-shoot economics. He just doesn't want the gentlemen players to have to face any competition:
Now the good news side of this is there are some of the larger aerospace companies looking into getting into it, the Boeings, the Lockheed Martins, the ATKs, are now looking to compete in the commercial side of the business. That's a little more encouraging. Those are the folks who have been working on everything we've done for the last 50 years. They know how it can be done.
A person who has walked on the moon may deserve some leeway when it comes to in-my-day obscurantism, but this is commentary unbecoming a NASA astronaut. Still, if Musk's wish to win over his NASA critics is genuine, this seems like a problem he could solve by giving them seats on the board or other titles and honors. And a sash, don't forget to give them each a sash.
At Forbes, James Poulos attacks the astronauts' complaint as well as Musk's presumption that space entrepreneurs are leading the way to a spacefaring future that will save humanity from an eventual extinction event:
Some eventual extinction event? If Musk's sense of mission for SpaceX is dependent upon his faith that humanity faces a meaningless dead end if it's confined to Earth, we've got bigger problems than the stubborn persistence of the stale national-greatness vision. Without getting too heavily religious, it seems important to observe that the dominant form of scientific secularism today is apt to leave people with the imagination-deadening view that Musk puts forth: Earth is too small for us; the universe doesn't care about us; everything is destined for entropy, extinction, or explosion; the goal is mere survival. A more divine view, we might say, is that Earth is not a prison or a curse but the promise of an infinite future, an invitation to consider a possibility that's beyond our imaginations but also naturally fulfilling of who we really are. Think of the approach to space travel and interstellar colonization a culture could achieve if that was its point of departure!
That's too deep for me, but I agree that thinking space is going to be the place our species escapes to requires you to ignore the immeasurable worse-ness of space relative to even the harshest environments on this planet.