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Opening the Space Race
Maria Gabriela Orochena Privatizing NASA is a step in the right direction.
Commencement 2004

Until recently, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been the sole organization dedicated to space exploration in the United States. Now, people are beginning to realize the impact that private companies can have on research and development. The nation is beginning to rediscover the methods used to make advancements in other fields. One of the most effective methods used to stimulate research has been the use of prizes, an idea which has had great success in the past.

In 1919, Raymond Orteig, a hotel owner, offered $25,000 to the first person to fly non-stop from New York to Paris. It was not until 1927 that the prize was awarded to Charles Lindbergh II, an American aviator who flew across the Atlantic Ocean on his airplane, the Spirit of St. Louis. Today, the field of space travel finally has something comparable to the Orteig Prize -- the X Prize. The X Prize offers a $10 million award for the first non-government organization to launch a ship with a capacity of three people one hundred kilometers two times in the span of two weeks.

Private award yield results that government organizations can only dream to achieve in a comparable time slot. For example, the X Prize is awarding $10 million, a sum which if issued by the U.S. government would just stay stagnant at ten million dollars. However, the twenty-seven organizations competing for the privatized X Prize have already multiplied that $10 million into more than $50 million of spending on research.

Furthermore, private organizations have much more freedom and can explore projects which the government otherwise would deem too risky. If the government is the only organization working toward the goal of advancement, there is no threat of lasting repercussions for failure. When the X Prize is awarded, there will be twenty-six failures, but there will still be one winner, someone who will show that all the money spent was not in vain. The government is also subject to intense criticism when failures occur, which often delays the technological improvement needed to prevent such failures in the future. For instance, after the tragic end of the Columbia shuttle mission in 2003, NASA faced the threat of reduced funding from the government and thus had to slow down the progress of its projects. It is easy to see why government organizations must be so careful and slow; in the event of a failure, they must take time to reevaluate the entire process and be cautious in the face of public blame and criticism.

Ultimately, risk-taking is the process most conducive to research. Until something new and innovative is tried, the results will be based on assumptions and unclear secondary information. In this context, failure can often be helpful. When one group fails, the others can learn from that mistake and not have to wait until that group recovers from its failure. Thus, private research continues, even in the face of adversity.

Thankfully, the United States government is finally realizing the benefits of private research when it comes to space travel. The Federal Aviation Administration has issued a license to Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites for rocket flight, allowing Scaled Composites to compete for the X Prize. NASA has also followed this trend with its Centennial Challenges program. This program is a series of competitions with several monetary awards based on tangible achievements, not just proposals. Also, the program is open to many people who have no connection to NASA. This brings in an entirely new source of ideas and innovation. Aside from advancing research to new heights that the government could not reach, these competitions and awards will foster a desire to participate in cutting-edge research.

The message is clear: private space research and exploration is the only way that humanity can have a real chance to see the fruits of their work within their lifetimes. Even if government efforts address the same goals, their plans are often thwarted by political concerns and have the added drawback of burdening taxpayers with the cost of a program that produces suboptimal and less rapid results. Private research, on the other hand, results in a low-cost technological boom with many important advancements. With merit-based incentives and the privatization of the space race, the added competitive edge might just push us to the moon.

Maria Gabriela Orochena is a rising sophomore in Berkeley College.


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