Burt Rutan is an American aerospace engineer famous for his design of the sub-orbital spaceplane SpaceShipOne, which won the Ansari X-Prize in 2004 for becoming the first privately funded spacecraft to enter the realm of space twice within a two week period. He has four aircraft on display in the National Air and Space Museum. These are a few of his thoughts regarding space policy:
My basic concern is that the real value of NASA’s contributions that America realized in the 60s and early 70s is now being completely discarded. How can we rationalize a surrender of our preeminence in human spaceflight? In my mind, the important NASA accomplishments are twofold: 1) The technical breakthroughs achieved by basic research (not by Development programs like Constellation) and 2) The Forefront Manned Exploration that provided the inspiration for our youth to plan careers in engineering/science and that established the U.S. as the world leader in technology.
In short, it is a good idea indeed for the commercial community to compete to re-supply the ISS and to bring about space access for the public to enjoy. I applaud the efforts of SpaceX, Virgin and Orbital in that regard and feel these activities should have been done at least two decades ago. However, I do not see the commercial companies taking Americans to Mars or to the moons of Saturn within my lifetime and I doubt if they will take the true Research risks (technical and financial) to fly new concepts that have low confidence of return on investment. Even NASA, regarded as our prime Research agency has not recently shown a willingness to fly true Research concepts.
For years I have stated that a NASA return-to-moon effort must include true Research content, i.e. testing new concepts needed to enable forefront Exploration beyond the moon. The current Ares/Orion does not do that. While I have been critical of Constellation for that reason, I do not think that NASA should ‘give up’ on manned spaceflight, just that they should be doing it while meeting the 1) or 2) criteria above.
Some have guessed that my recent comments are based on my overall displeasure with the Obama Administration. They are not; however it does seem that the best technical minds in U.S. industry are still striving to find HOW America can continue to be “exceptional”, while the Administration does not want America to BE “exceptional”.