Best Way to Become an Astronaut: Work for a Private Company?

March 26, 2013

Across the “final frontier” the stars have realigned when it comes to the private sector’s role in space. Long considered the domain of governments, the term “space commerce” is becoming a national and international reality. 

Due to sovereign fiscal constraint as well as recognition of the private sector’s unique strengths and capabilities, space policy is focusing with increasing intensity on private enterprise. Legislation enacted in 2005 and 2010 significantly expanded the private sector’s role in all aspects of national space initiative – and with it the hope of greater entrepreneurship, innovation, discovery, and job creation. As a result, government is realigning to foster the private sector’s new role.

This transformation is taking place at a time that space is taking center stage in the technology-based global economy.  Satellites and other space-based assets enable the delivery of modern communications, telemedicine, entertainment, navigation, and remote sensing.  Space-based experimentation promises to produce transformational new insights in the physical, earth, and life sciences.  Manufacturing in zero gravity will help spawn wondrous new products and capabilities; while space exploration, transportation, and tourism can revolutionize the human experience.

In each of these areas vital to our national and international economic life, the private sector is emerging front and center. Entrepreneurs and financiers are lining up to tackle new and exciting challenges.  While NASA doesn’t have a new launch system to replace its retired workhorse – the Space Shuttle, the private sector has developed three in the past decade. 

Space, however, is not a domain where the public and industry would be better off if the government just “got out of the way.”  Its monopoly has faded but government will remain an important consumer as well as regulator of space-based activities and initiative. It must perform its roles strategically and efficiently.

For space industry to thrive, the public sector must be an energetic partner not only by commissioning and inspiring new achievements in space but by helping foster strong and vibrant markets. This includes for commercial launch services, space vehicle development, space exploration, and the development of useful space-based services. Among the public sector’s most important missions will be in preparing the nation’s student body and workforce to seize the enormous job opportunity in an industry that has grown 12% annually for seven years. The U.S. can’t remain a great spacefaring nation, much less an economically competitive one, if we don’t excel in the STEM disciplines, an area where our students continue to lag dangerously behind their international peers.

America’s space program has always been the cradle for game-changing innovations and spin-off technologies that have improved the human condition.  The program now enters a new phase, when we can marry the unique capabilities, resources, and pulpit of government, with the unmatched creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovative capacity of the private sector to reach new heights.

Success will require government to be an active partner; not a silent standby because we no longer wish to incur public expense, heedless of its return. Now is the time for a national space strategy that sets lofty goals and establishes vibrant, well-resourced partnerships to achieve them—collaboration that will unleash the power of entrepreneurs to do what they do best: dream, create, and accomplish. This will improve our chances of harnessing the final frontier to improve life right here on earth.