Charles D. Walker (a former commercial astronaut), kicked up something of a fuss recently when he opined in the pages of the Arizona Daily Star that NASA should lead the way in space exploration and not leave everything to the private sector. The reasons he cites are risk and lack of a clear profit motive, particularly related to going to Mars. The commercial #Space sector should be encouraged to bring down the cost of space travel, particularly by operating a space taxi service to the International Space Station, in his view. But NASA must lead the way in exploration, particularly in deep space.
Walker knows something of the relationship between commercial space and NASA back in the 1980's when, before the Challenger accident, he flew on three space shuttle missions as a payload specialist employed by McDonnell Douglas. He worked on the continuous flow electrophoresis (CFES) device, an early attempt to develop a way to manufacture biomedical products in space. Walker was the first Americans to fly on a space mission who was not a NASA astronaut.
Walker’s view of the relationship between NASA and the commercial space sector is not exactly without precedent. President George W. Bush, when establishing what would eventually become the Constellation exploration program, relegated the commercial space sector to operating in the well-traveled realm of low Earth orbit. The Obama administration, even though it cancelled Constellation, has pretty much confirmed that policy, though it has also moved to encourage commercial robotic missions to the moon and elsewhere.
In the meantime, organizations such as the Dutch-based Mars One and Elon Musk’s SpaceX have plans in various stages of development of building Mars colonies. The Mars One scheme, which has started to recruit Mars colonists, has been called into question by a study conducted by MIT. Musk’s Mars ambitions are sufficiently vague that they defy intelligent evaluation, though a super-heavy-lift vehicle called the Mars Colonial Transport seems to be at the center of the scheme.
Walker’s op-ed, which was warmly supported by Mary Lynn Dittmar of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, was roundly condemned by Keith Cowing, a long-time space blogger, Cowing referred to Walker’s argument as “nonsense” and Dittmar’s defense of it as “silly.”
The exchange is not so much a fight between NASA and commercial space. Most supporters of the space agency are supporters of commercial partnerships. The argument, such as can be determined, of the opponents of NASA space exploration, is that the space agency that took men to the moon and back should not be tasked with any other space exploration projects. However, the commercial space sector, albeit heavily dependent on government contracts and subsidies to survive, will be able to go to Mars fairly easily if fuddy-duddies like Walker and Dittmar would just be quiet and get out of the way.