Billionaires are no substitute for NASA

Bezos, Musk, and Branson can’t plug the gap between America’s ambitions and its funding for Orion

You might have seen an article in The New York Times featuring Jeff Bezos’ most recent contribution to space exploration.

Standing against the backdrop of his New Shepard rocket booster and a full-scale mock capsule for carrying humans into space, Jeff Bezos revealed on Wednesday that he was selling about $1 billion in Amazon stock a year to finance his Blue Origin rocket company.

Mr. Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon, showed off the reusable rocket booster and the mock-up of the capsule that will take people up for panoramic views back down at earth, during a symposium here.

Mr. Bezos, who hopes to build Blue Origin into a commercial and tourist venture, also disclosed that it would cost about $2.5 billion to develop an even bigger rocket, New Glenn, capable of lifting satellites and, eventually, people into orbit.

It’s quite the pledge from Mr. Bezos, and one that would put Blue Origin back on par with, if not ahead of, competitors such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX (at least $1.15B in funding) and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic (at least $600M).

Each is vying to become the first to commercialize space travel — starting with interim waypoints such as space tourism or supply shipments to the International Space Station.

And all three have much bigger goals on the horizon.

But are any of these efforts enough to bootstrap a space program?

All three, even when combined, fall rather short of the investment into NASA’s current rocket development program, the Orion Spacecraft.

For context, the proposed FY18 budget calls for $19.1 billion in funding for NASA, spread across space exploration programs (including Orion), earth science studies, and funding for education. As a direct comparison to private efforts to build a spacecraft, Orion receives approximately $3.7 billion of this allocation.

Blue Origin, even with Bezos’ pledge, has barely more than a quarter of Orion’s annual funding. Not to mention that Blue Origin’s current marquee spacecraft, the New Shepard, is currently aiming just to reach sub-orbital space, while Orion has been designed from the start with the ambition to go to the Moon and Mars.

Unfortunately for NASA — and more damning for the startups in this space — even Orion’s funding pales in comparison to the investments put into the Apollo program and the Space Shuttle.

In 1966, the Apollo Program alone received $22.3 billion (in 2017 adjusted dollars). The Space Shuttle cost nearly $1.6 billion per flight over its lifetime. I won’t claim that the Shuttle was the best or most efficient use of funding, but it was still an operational spacecraft that achieved tangible goals for NASA.

Today, NASA receives approximately 0.5% of the federal budget in funding, which pales in comparison to the heyday of the space race. Back in 1966, NASA received 4.4% of the budget. Even considering the wind-down after Apollo, NASA has never received as small a percentage of the federal budget as it does today.

You want to know why we’re not on our way to Mars already? It can’t be done at less than one-tenth the cost of landing on the Moon.

The Trump Administration’s FY18 budget perpetuates the fantasy that Bezos, Musk, and Branson can single-handedly bring about the future of space travel. The budget specifically calls out “new opportunities for collaboration with industry on space station operations” and “public-private partnerships for deep-space habitation and exploration systems” amid an overriding belief that government is no longer the optimal vehicle for the next great leap in space exploration. But this ignores the fact that NASA has been denied access to the kind of funding that could indeed achieve the space program’s potential.

The operative question going forward: What could NASA accomplish with even 1% of the federal budget? What benefits could the country receive as a result?

It has been said that for every dollar invested in space research, America gets at least seven dollars of value in return. Maybe it’s time for the U.S. government to double down on this investment? There’s certainly a place for private investment in space research, especially in low Earth orbit. But unless we see investors doubling or tripling their outlays, it won’t be an adequate substitute for what NASA, if funded adequately, could deliver.

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