June 12, 2011

Our View: For the future of space travel, check the NYSE

Robots can meet our scientific and security goals, so let the private sector do the rest.

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British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson holds a model of SpaceShipOne, a privately developed manned rocket created by aviation designer Burt Rutan and funded by billionaire Paul Allen. Branson’s Virgin Group has entered an agreement to license the technology to develop the world’s first privately funded space travel, Virgin Galactic.

Associated Press file

Then there are the space probes, from Voyager to Pioneer to Cassini to Galileo to Mariner -- and many more launched by this nation and others -- that have showed us much about the planets, moons, asteroids and comets that populate our solar system.

The second is national defense, which was the spur for the GPS system and nuclear launch warning satellites, and today includes a large number of other satellites, many with secret missions, that fill the sky above us. So far, we have avoided placing actual weapons in space, although that possibility remains a constant danger.


Will our nation, either by itself or with others, ever produce the systems capable of returning people to the moon or exploring other planets?

Even though we have all the knowledge we need to launch such missions, they will be expensive and, at least as of today, have scant hope of producing any returns beyond those of pure science -- which, many argue, can be accomplished by much less costly robotic, unmanned probes in the future as they have in the past.

Yet, there remains within the human spirit the desire to "see what lies beyond," and that effort has never been without risk. It may well be time to let entrepreneurs bear a much larger share of the risk and the cost for missions that cannot satisfy scientific or national security goals with robotic satellites and probes.

"To boldly go" where no one has gone before is a wonderful goal. We should let those who value it most accomplish it -- if and when (and how) they can.


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