Thursday, June 28, 2012

A new era blasts off

Private space flight raises the question: Can private companies improve other government services?

The successful return of the Dragon-X space cargo capsule recently shows that the era of private commercial space flight has begun.
The unmanned capsule was built and operated by Space Exploration Technologies (Space-X), a 10-year-old company owned by Paypal founder and billionaire Elon Musk. Dragon-X carried 500 kg of supplies and equipment to the International Space Station and returned with about 650 kg of retired equipment and scientific samples.
It used to be the accepted wisdom that space flight was the province of governments: the resources (money and manpower) needed for space missions were so expensive that only big federal agencies could afford them. Space-X's Musk has turned this idea on its head.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) itself has sought to move space flight to private companies in recent years. Its space shuttles flew their last missions in 2011; American astronauts currently board Russian and European spacecraft to go to the International Space Station. Space-X is vying for a $1.6 billion Nasa contract for 12 supply missions to the International Space Station. It also has plans to start ferrying astronauts into orbit. Nor is it the only one. There is healthy competition among private companies to see who gets there first.
In the 1960s, space became a theatre of the Cold War as superpowers United States and the USSR raced each other to prove technical superiority. By the end of the decade, American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had walked on the Moon. It was a triumph of engineering: the United States had won the space race.
Four decades later, amidst a weak economy, there is no appetite among American politicians for the big taxpayer-funded spending Nasa's manned space flights need. Russia's space programme is particularly in dire straits. While countries like India and China have space aspirations, and have had good successes in recent years, today the most interesting proposals are coming from the private sector.
Space has gone back to being the province of obsessed dreamers — which is where it all started. Early rocketry and space flight pioneers such as Robert Goddard and Hermann Oberth were ins-pired by science fiction. They conducted rocketry experiments as kids and constantly thought about how humans could get rid of our earthly shackles. Few who knew them as kids probably thought their dreams would be realised. Yet, man not only went into orbit, but walked on the Moon in the 20th century.
Today, Musk wants to retire on Mars, and Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson plans to offer space tourism flights. Film director and explorer James Cameron has announced he is interested in mining asteroids for precious metals.
Private entrepreneurs have always advanced new technologies, even if they are not the original inventors. Look at the history of the railway. A working steam locomotive was developed by Richard Trevithick in Cornwall, years before George Stephenson built the Stockton and Darlington railway. But it was Stephenson who was entrepreneurial enough to make trains successful.                English inventor Joseph Swan constructed a working incandescent light bulb years before Thomas Alva Edison, who is widely credited with its invention. Swan even set up a com-pany to market his invention. But it was Edison's entrepreneurship and scheme for electricity distribution that eventually won the day. (Swan's company later merged with Edison's.)
Private entrepreneurs can often reduce costs drastically. Musk has estimated that Space-X can launch one kg of payload into orbit at about one-ninth Nasa's cost.
At this point, it is still early days for private commercial space flight. But there is no doubt that we are witnessing the beginning of a new era, when private corporations will make space their own turf. Space-X is working on creating manned space taxis next. While Came-ron's avowed desire to mine asteroids may sound more in the realm of science fiction than science fact, it might indeed be technically feasible (although the jury is still out on the economic benefits, because any precious metals mined this way would be plentiful enough to see their prices drop).
Science fiction author Arthur C Clarke predicted shortly before his death in 2008 that commercial spacecraft would become a reality within the decade. Space-X was making plans then. He also told me that he believed thousands would travel into orbit in the next 50 years, and then people would go to the Moon and beyond on private spacecraft.
It is worth asking what private entrepreneurs could do for other large public enterprises. For instance, could a private enterprise improve rail service in India? Would a private corporation do a better job than Indian Railways of running, say, a high-speed Delhi-Mumbai rail corridor?
And what about India Post ? Should the government look into privatising the postal service, or at least sections of it? Anyone who goes to a post office in India recognises that there are things the government doesn't do particularly well.
When one thinks about it, there are probably only a few things that governments should always do. National security is of course the obvious example. Health monitoring and national healthcare may be another. Most things that we have thought were the province of governments can be done just as well by public-private partnerships — or just private enterprises. By sending a rocket to space, Space-X has just proven it to us.

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