Liberating NASA

NEW YORK – Let me disclose my biases up front: I did not dream of going into space as a child. I took it for granted. My father was a (genuine) rocket scientist, and I figured that just as airplanes had become commonplace over the course of his life, space travel would become commonplace over the course of mine.

People first landed on the Moon while I was a teenager, and I turned to other pursuits – journalism, the Internet, startup companies. But then, decades later, I woke up and discovered that space travel was still reserved for a small corps of astronauts and cosmonauts, and a tiny group of wealthy space tourists – six so far. The space business was the preserve of a few governments, plus a number of large cost-plus contractors who lived in symbiosis with their government customers. 

Then there was Space Adventures, the private company that arranges the space tourist trips with Roskosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency, for upwards of $35 million a flight. I invested in Space Adventures, and also in XCOR Aerospace, a rocket maker. As with the Internet, I could see the glimmer of the energy that results  when commercial startups invade a market dominated by large, established organizations. I wanted to know more about space travel (not about startups!) and figured that six months of space training with Roskosmos, organized by Space Adventures, was the best way to get totally immersed.

After I returned, I had the opportunity to join the NASA Advisory Council, as chairman of its Technology and Innovation Committee. The Council has recently been shaken up, with its membership reduced from 50 to 10 and each member's role clarified. However,  the Council's actual power is limited: NASA is told what to do – and is financed to to do it – by the United States Congress. We can only advise on what Congress decrees and funds.