As NewSpace Prepares to Take Off, Will Congress Let NASA Get On Board?

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Earlier this week, yet another Congressional committee held hearings on the direction of NASA and  future of human spaceflight.   Even for policy wonks, this gets old.  Maybe though, that is about to change.   

It has been a long eight years since SpaceShip 1 won the Ansari X-Prize and began to focus the world’s attention on the potential inherent in the NewSpace movement. Now, with the powered flight testing program for SpaceShip 2 already underway, and looking to enter the suborbital realm by the end of the year, and XCOR’s Lynx Mark I right on its heels, it seems apparent that NewSpace is about to get a lot more visible. According to the Hollywood Reporter, (via NewSpaceWatch.com) Cinipix Parters is preparing to produce a film, “Newcomers” which will not only include footage shot aboard an XCOR Lynx, but showcase the Lynx itself in the film.

While many near-term science fiction movies have been absolutely awful (Mission to Mars, Red Planet comes to mind), that really isn’t the point. For many years, the Space Shuttle or close derivatives have been featured in major motion pictures such as Armageddon, Space Cowboys or in more modest productions such as the beginning of 2003’s version of Riverworld, among various offerings on Sci-Fi (Sy-fy.) It was simply the easiest way to portray space.  Now however, just about everyone knows the Shuttle is retired, probably a significantly higher number of people than can name the Vice-President or Speaker of the House. So what’s Hollywood to do?

Move on to the new systems which are gradually seeping into popular culture. This is already happening in a significant way in the Siemens commercial featuring SpaceX which airs heavily, especially during Fox News’ most viewed evening broadcasts, which is something of an irony. The same audience which is given a very slanted and essentially disingenuous portrayal of Tesla, is at the same time receiving a glowing portrayal of SpaceX several times a night. But that is precisely point. NewSpace is beginning to find its way into popular culture through an increasing number of avenues, and the trend will only become more pronounced when other companies join SpaceX in flying hardware. It may have some interesting implications for public policy.

It seems likely that in the very near future, what the public perceives as what is possible to accomplish in space is due for a major upgrade, one which will be driven from multiple angles by some of the best marketing talent on the planet. For example, based on comments made at the ongoing Space Tech Expo, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is planning an “exponential” increase in cross promotions once Space Ship 2 begins operations. Although the difference between orbital and suborbital space is very clear to people who are generally interested in human spaceflight, the distinction may not be all the clear to the rest of the world, and it will lose even more meaning if and when the first orbital test flight projected by SpaceX or Boeing as part of the Commercial Crew program takes place.

Even if the proposed budget for Commercial Crew is slashed by its opponents in Congress yet again, such action will only delay the inevitable introduction of the first commercial, passenger carrying space transportation system, and it could even have the opposite effect. Either way, as public awareness of private spaceflight increases though the engine of marketing,  even Congress may reach the understanding that  a threshold has been passed, and that for NASA to maintain its current relevance, policy must be adjusted accordingly. One possible outcome,  mission planners wisely decide to  follow Wayne Hale’s conclusion,  (presented to yet another committee) that commercial space is the key to affordable logistics for deep space exploration.  If that doesn’t happen,  the terms NASA and science fiction may take on a whole new meaning.

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