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Can Space Profits Save the Space Program?

This year is a critical year – and the 1980s a critical decade – for the future of the U.S. in space. With the flight of the Space Shuttle will come the moment of decision: we must then move decisively to open the new window it will provide to economic and intellectual progress.

That coming necessity should be more obvious than it is, say Gilbert W. Keyes and John T. Bosma of Boeing Aerospace Co. “From a viewpoint of technical and financial risk,” they told the American Association for the Advancement of Science last winter, “space ventures rate well below industries such as offshore oil, and, to a certain extent, electronics.”

“Space is a surprisingly ordinary economic environment,” they said. And they think that fact will become obvious when the shuttle begins regular flights sometime in the 1980s.

But most of the plans for space do not sound ordinary at all….[An] example, from…the Franklin Institute’s Research Center: a solar-powered sphere one mile in diameter to be placed in the stratosphere at an altitude of 30 kilometers as a base for surveillance, research communications, and solar energy generation….

The obstacles to…commercial exploitation of space are financial, organizational, and political – but not technological, [Keyes and Bosma] said. What’s needed are “sharp increases” in NASA’s budgets for 1980-85 together with tax and other financial incentives “to reduce the risks and costs for industries that participate in fledgling space industries.” The goal is to let private industry make space systems self-sustaining so that NASA can concentrate on research….

Without [new appropriations for space science], space may well turn into a military jurisdiction. “We are only beginning to appreciate the full potential of military space systems,” Robert A. Davis of Aerospace Corp. told the AAAS. Here, too, the problem is likely to be money. But superimposed on that problem for the military space planner, said Dr. Davis, is the question sharpened by the ever-increasing development time needed for new weapons systems: “How can we be sure that new technology can be introduced at a pace commensurate with its need as well as its availability?”

John. I. Mattill (May 1980, p. 80)

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25 Years ago in Technology Review

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