On Tuesday NASA released what it calls a new “space exploration roadmap,” outlining the agency’s goals for the human exploration of space over the next few decades.
Normally I’d say, who cares? The space agency puts these kinds of PR roadmaps together periodically. None of them really ever mean that much. And in truth, this particular report doesn’t mean that much either. However, what makes this “Global Plan” interesting and worth mentioning is the participants who wrote it. It seems that NASA and the Obama administration didn’t do it alone.
The “Global Exploration Roadmap” is an update to a plan first put forward in 2011 that unites the interests of the space agencies of Italy, France, Canada, Germany, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Ukraine, Russia, the United Kingdom, as well as the European Space Agency and NASA.
The report appears to be an attempt to merge the Bush proposal from 2004 (going to the Moon) with the Obama proposal from 2010 (going to an asteroid) by stating the overall goal is to go to both places. This is good, as it is simple common sense. When we finally begin exploring the solar system we will go everywhere.
Far more interesting is the fact that this report was put together with the cooperation of so many government space agencies. The bureaucrats at these agencies have apparently decided to officially coordinate their efforts, even if, as noted in this Russian article about the roadmap, “The space agencies involved do not have to take part in every element or mission outlined in the roadmap.”
It seems to me that the competitive battle lines for the future exploration of space are being drawn.
On one side are the governments of the world, financed by the coerced tax dollars of their citizens and designed and built by the bureaucrats of those governments. These governments want to dictate how the exploration of space will unfold, and are now working together to try to make that happen.
On the other side are the private companies of the world, mostly in the United States but certainly including other efforts in other countries, financed privately from investors and customers who have freely purchased the products for their own needs. In the next few years these companies will hopefully break out with their first successes, and will use those successes to push their own independent goals in space.
It will be interesting to see how the governments respond to these private successes, many of which will likely involve achievements that have nothing to do with this new governmental “global roadmap.” For example, the roadmap says very little about tourist operations. Will these agencies welcome such missions? Or will they team up to squelch it, as NASA tried to do when space tourist Dennis Tito first wanted to fly to ISS?
In fact, how will these agencies respond to competition in general? The very nature of this global roadmap is to emphasis cooperation and coordination. Competition doesn’t fit with these concepts.
It is my suspicion that, as always, the government agencies will try to take over and control the private efforts. I also suspect that they will fail at this, mostly because this roadmap depends so much on NASA’s SLS rocket, a system that is too expensive and will fly too rarely to be useful.
Success breeds success. Since competition is always more effective in producing results, I expect this roadmap to end up in the dustbin of history, just as every other NASA roadmap has. When SpaceX’s privately built Falcon Heavy sends the first tourists to the Moon, or when the Boeing CST-100 capsule carries the first tourists up to a privately built Bigelow space station, no one will remember this global roadmap, as the only thing it will have accomplished is to provide work for a Washington, DC, printing office.
The only real question is whether it will drag the private efforts into the dustbin with it. I expect these governments will try. I do not know right now whether they will have the power to succeed.