Space agencies of the world unite!


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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.

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6 comments

  • Steven Scharfenberger

    Dear Mr. Zimmerman, I am a regular listener to the John Batchelor show and the I really enjoy the “Behind the Black” segments.
    Do you have a Twitter account for your “Behind the Black” site? If not, Would you consider starting one?

  • No Twitter for me. Sorry. It is enough work to maintain the website.

    Besides, I dislike Twitter. I dislike its format, which encourages wisecracks and short stupid snark, but little content or depth of thought.

    If you like what I have to say, then come to Behind the Black regularly. I post often enough to keep everyone interested.

  • wodun

    Watch out. Pretty soon you will be listening to The Space Show and there is no turning back.

  • Edward

    The beauty of private exploration of space (or anywhere) is that we have 7 billion people who can provide ideas for where and how to explore. The united space agencies of the world provide only one idea or group of ideas. Even if only a small fraction of the world’s people have ideas and a small fraction of those people can carry out their ideas, private exploration could easily out-explore the world’s space agencies.

    Funding for private exploration may be difficult, but government budgets are also difficult, and space exploration has often been low on government priority lists. However, graduate students at various universities have successfully launched several “cubesats” to implement their own explorations on the cheap. Companies and even the NSA have been looking into using cubesats. Cubesats have been so successful that the space community is now worried that there isn’t enough bandwidth to communicate with the large number of expected future cubesats.

    On a grander scale, Bigelow Aerospace’s space habitats could quickly become better space stations than the expensive ISS. With private transportation from Blue Skies, Boeing, Space X, and others, the ISS could be obsolete by the time its useful life has expired.

    If companies such as Skybox Imaging and Moon Express are successful, there could be an amazing rush for privately funded exploration and exploitation of space.

    I suspect that private space exploration and exploitation will soon become too large for the space agencies to stifle, even if they wanted to.

    This is an exciting time in the space business. The promise that we felt four decades ago seems only now to be coming true. I don’t want to retire from the business. I want to stay and be part of what I had hoped all these years would have happened.


  • 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.

    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.

    If only that’s how it worked, the winner would be obvious and this situation would be transitory. In reality, the private companies capture temporary control over the bureaucrats and redirect the coerced tax dollars to them. This crowds out private investment in any company which hasn’t got access to the bureaucrats, which encourages them to direct their limited resources at gaining access. Without a level playing field, there’s no competition. The result is widespread industry consolidation and at best an oligopoly.

    What we should be hoping for is government disinterest in spaceflight. That way the market can actually begin to function again. This is almost exactly the opposite of what’s happening and what the space advocate community has agitated for.

  • Pzatchok

    Want to know the best way to colonize space in all forms? Especially the moon.

    Declare it free. Set guide lines on how to claim it.
    Something like you have to continually occupy it for 10 years or so. Or make it productive in some way.

    As for exo planets. Who cares. First come first served. If a nation wants a whole planet to itself it better get to sending colonists.

    Who’s going to stop them? And how? If you want the democratic way of life to takeover the galaxy in the next hundred years we better get to sending some colonists out. Otherwise we will be leaving the closest and most viable planets to other nations like China or the new Muslim super nation covering the whole of the Middle East.

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