Now that SpaceX have won the contract to hoist the first two modules of what will become Lunar Gateway – or Gateway to those with eyes set on a farther horizon – it is clear we are on a path that will require a LOT of investment for the long term and eventually have the money men (or taxpayers) asking ‘Will this start paying for itself?’ A similar question sounded the death knell of big spending when Apollo lost its TV audience.
But this time around the show is not dependent on viewing numbers and national prestige. The decisions to fund Gateway and the host of other programmes led by NASA are driven strangely enough by economics. Every president and every financial year deliver a level of funding to NASA that equates with the nation’s ambitions for scientific discovery and maintenance in the belief that America is the most advanced industrial nation. Budgets go up and go down, and many times in the decades since the last Apollo visit administrations have considered (and even pledged) to go back, but there was never justification for a return. For a long while no other country had the means or the financial clout to get there. Without a reason there was no need.
But since 2000 when the seemingly crazy idea of private companies doing what NASA did cheaper and better first emerged, the landscape has changed seismically.
First, space R&D did get cheaper, and got faster too. Next, the rockets that these entrepreneurs built did bring down costs enormously. Space began to look cheaper. The taxpayer funded sector respond to the commercial pressure with improving efficiencies tied to greater computational power changing systems and processes.
Secondly, funding flowed from sources other than governments, and much of this was from the pockets of entrepreneurs putting cash on the line to make dreams reality. Fifteen years ago, no one was betting on Musk with his sky-high ambition, or Bezos with his quiet, almost tinkering-for-fun approach. But when both men started delivering, well, suddenly every rich hedge fund dude sat up and took notice. Of course, they had to have a reason for joining the bandwagon, but there were plenty of genuinely smart people with ideas for space who just needed funding. For once the dreamers could access the money. Since then, things have been spinning faster and faster, idea to launch is a lot quicker than the old days of NASA et al dominance. Heck, book yourself a launch from anywhere and throw some tech in the sky. This is the age of access.