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NASA's Charles Bolden downplays private sector space exploration

NASA administrator Charles Bolden
NASA administrator Charles BoldenPhoto by Win McNamee/Getty Images

In a Monday interview in the Washington Post, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden seemed to denigrate the idea of private sector space exploration. This is despite the fact that a NASA sponsored report produced by Bigelow Aerospace advocated a private sector return to the moon supported by the space agency. Currently NASA is paying a number of private companies subsidies to build space craft to take astronauts to and from low Earth orbit.

I don’t think space exploration is becoming more of a private enterprise. That’s where we want it to go, but today there hasn’t been a private enterprise go to Mars or go to the moon. Private enterprise talks while NASA acts. And that’s not meant to sound like an arrogant statement, but we’re trying to help people realize dreams, and we’re trying to help private enterprise and entrepreneurs realize their dreams of doing the stuff that up until now only nations have done. The problem that private enterprise finds is that it’s hard.”

There are a number of private companies pursuing space exploration projects. The Google Lunar X Prize is sponsoring a number of private groups in a competition to land a rover on the lunar surface. Two companies, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, propose to mine asteroids, something that has a space exploration element in that such asteroids must be found and explored first. Golden Spike proposes to land people on the moon. Inspiration Mars plans a Venus/Mars flyby mission.

Bolden is making a point that purely private sector space exploration would be difficult and perhaps impossible, especially that involving astronauts, without the support of NASA. The Commercial Crew effort that will build private spacecraft is costing the space agency billions of dollars. Inspiration Mars is soliciting NASA hardware, particularly the heavy lift Space Launch System. Any private lunar return would likely require a lot of NASA technical and financial support. The space agency has provided some of the former in the Lunar CATALYST program but thus far none of the latter.

This state of affairs will not likely change until launch costs are brought down drastically. SpaceX is working on that problem by attempting to make at least parts of its Falcon launch vehicles reusable. Still the first deep space voyage undertaken purely with private funding and for a private purpose is still in the indefinite future.