Q-and-A: Former NASA Chief of Staff on Government's Role in Space Exploration

Is Space Exploration for Government or Private Enterprise?

Yahoo Contributor Network

In a recent interview, Virgin Galactic CEO and former NASA Chief of Staff George Whitesides told me that, in his opinion, one of NASA's important missions is to inspire a new generation of American students to pursue careers in science and technology just as the Apollo missions did forty years ago.

Although he doesn't ever see governments getting out of the space business entirely, largely due to the military and national defense applications of space technology and orbiting platforms, he does see an increasing reliance by governments on private industry as they become suppliers of space services. While NASA still has important work to do, America does not have pockets as deep as they once were, and efficiency is going to have to be every bit as important as vision in NASA's future.

At some point in the not too distant future, it seems as though companies like Virgin Galactic or others that are contemplating either orbital vehicles or orbital platforms might be able to offer better or at least equal space-based research opportunities compared to government-funded platforms. Do you see a time when governments get out of the space business in favor of private companies?

It depends upon what you mean by the question. I don't see governments getting out of the space business, in a general sense, ever. I mean certainly there's national security space which we're going to need forever, and I think that exploration of the type that we did, when you talk about the Apollo Program or you talk about just the Mars Rovers, is the kind of thing that is best done by, or best funded by government. So I don't see them getting out of those businesses at all.

What I think is more interesting is where the private sector can effectively do it themselves. The one that's gotten a lot of talk recently is low Earth orbit launch where the private sector has been doing it successfully for decades. I think in those places, the government needs to think carefully, and where appropriate, become a buyer of services rather than an operator. I think that was one of the big shifts that the new space policy for the United States recognized.

Although, I would say, that shift has been recommended by, I think, three or four blue ribbon panels dating back over the last 20 years, so this is not a new revelation, but it was, perhaps in some ways, the first time the government listened to that blue ribbon panel. I think it'll be a mix. I don't think it'll be all one or the other, and where appropriate, where the commercial sector can successfully and safely do the job, NASA can save money and use that money doing what it does best which is the exploration of the frontier.

There was some talk around the end of last year that Virgin Galactic might be considering competing for a piece of the NASA contract for upcoming vehicles, but now I understand that you're assisting other companies in that endeavor. Can you tell me a little more about that?

Sure. We are basically supporting the bids of two companies. One is a company called Sierra Nevada and the other is a company called Orbital Sciences. As you may have seen, Sierra Nevada was selected for the next round of the NASA commercial crew contest. So that's interesting, and then Orbital Sciences was not selected and I think they are considering what their next steps are, so you'd have to talk to them about that.

Both of those vehicles, by the way, are lifting body, or have aerodynamic control surfaces. Neither of them are capsules, in other words, and we thought that was interesting technology that we thought deserved support.

What sort of support are you offering?

Well, that's essentially between us and the companies, so we haven't publicly gone into that, but, you know, there are a variety of different things that we've either been into or are considering.

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Brad Sylvester writes about the space program for the Yahoo! Contributor Network. Watching the Apollo missions through the static on a small black and white television sparked a lifelong interest in the space sciences for him. Since then, he has spent 40 years watching improvements in the technologies of space travel and our understanding of the universe.

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