Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Space's future: Cameron gets it

For what it's worth -- perhaps not much, given that I didn't see "The Hurt Locker" -- I thought James Cameron and "Avatar" were a little short-changed at the Oscars this year. "Avatar" might not have had a great story, but the world created through special effects, in 3-D, was something of a revelation. We had an interesting debate in the pages of the Register last year, with Brian Calle of our staff dinging "Avatar" for being a manipulative piece of green leftism and Dave Boaz of Cato saying that on the contrary it was a tale of people, who turned out to be the good guys despite being blue, protecting their land and property from alien invaders. Both had good points but I think Dave had the better of it.

That's prelude to being pleased that in this op-ed for the WaPo a while ago -- I've had it on my stack of stuff for a while -- director James Cameron appears to get it about the intelligent way to go forward with space exploration. He notes that NASA's budget reflects the policy going forward -- knowing the shuttle will be retired soon they're ready to let private companies provide transportation to low earth orbit -- though they might have to rely on the Russians in the interim, while NASA will focus on deep space exploration, both robotic and human. This has made sense for a long time, but it wasn't inevitable that NASA would come to this conclusion.

When I went to Mojave to see SpaceShipOne get into space for the second time and win the X-Prize a few years ago, I was a little surprised to see a high-ranking NASA official take part in the subsequent press conference and sound supportive. I had been to a conference a few years before that at which Burt Rutan, the visionary genius behind SpaceShipOne, was extremely dismissive of NASA, and with good reason. The Space Shuttle was a wasteful detour and he was on the verge of proving that a private company could do low Earth orbit space trips better. But apparently NASA has seen the light, and it's encouraging that James Cameron gets it too.

Of course Heinlein in one of his novels had private companies do almost all the space exploration, and it's theoretically possible for a private companies, or competing private companies, to do deep space exploration, probably better than NASA. But for better or worse NASA is probably not going away, so letting it handle deep space and let the private sector commercialize what has become almost routine may be the least-worst of the readily available policies.