Some people were surprised earlier this week when the Wall Street Journal reported that Burt Rutan submitted a letter to Congress critical of the administration’s move to commercialize human spaceflight. “That would be a very big mistake for America to make,” according to a brief excerpt of the letter quoted by the Journal.
However, Rutan has since issued a statement, published by Flightglobal, claiming that the newspaper “chose to cherry-pick and miss-quote” his comments. While the text of his letter to Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), ranking member of the appropriations subcommittee with oversight of NASA, hasn’t been released, his statement made clear he is not opposed to NASA supporting commercial human spaceflight. “In short, it is a good idea indeed for the commercial community to compete to re-supply the ISS and to bring about space access for the public to enjoy. I applaud the efforts of SpaceX, Virgin and Orbital in that regard and feel these activities should have been done at least two decades ago,” he writes. He is concerned about “a surrender of our preeminence in human spaceflight”, but is not a supporter of Constellation because of its lack of “technical breakthroughs”. “I do not think that NASA should ‘give up’ on manned spaceflight, just that they should be doing it while meeting” two criteria: achieving technical breakthroughs through basic research, and providing inspiration for students to pursue careers in science and engineering.
A day after the article about Rutan’s criticism, the Journal published a short op-ed from Buzz Aldrin in favor of the agency’s new direction, in part because of its apparent long-term focus on Mars:
The new direction that Mr. Obama has set in this budget is the kind of bold initiative we have needed for many years. Mankind must explore and America must lead—in all aspects of space exploration, not least manned space exploration. But we must be willing to embrace real vision and reach for Mars with the patience that leadership has always required.
Another supporter is John Carmack, the founder of Armadillo Aerospace. “[H]onestly, I thought the program was going to drag on for another half decade and piss away several more tens of billions of dollars before being re-scoped due to failure to deliver,” he wrote in an essay on VentureBeat. “I don’t really blame NASA — hey, building rockets is fun! It just isn’t the best organization to do it.” Turning to the commercial sector for transportation to LEO of cargo and crews “may be the most beneficial thing NASA has ever done”.
Kendrick Meek, a Democratic candidate for the Senate in Florida, would disagree. “Establishing commercial spaceflights is critical to maintaining our nation’s leadership in space, but we cannot rely on private expeditions to take the place of NASA-administered spaceflights just yet,” Meek wrote in an op-ed in TCPalm.com. “It will take decades to build a safe and functioning commercial program.” He adds that the thousands of jobs expected to be lost in Florida with the retirement of the shuttle is “simply unacceptable”.
However, KSC director Robert Cabana is providing some tough love to local politicians. “Commercial space and low-Earth orbit is our future. It’s time to transition,” he told the Brevard County Commission earlier this week, as reported by Florida Today. Local officials, he said, can choose to embrace the change and find out how to make the best of it for the region, or argue it’s not what they want “and we’re going to get left behind.”