Prepare for Liftoff

The future of space exploration will be driven by private markets, not government spending.

The U.S. Defense Department may have created the Internet, but had it kept control of the technology, it's unlikely the Web would have become the vibrant public resource it is today. That credit goes to the investment and activity of private citizens and private companies, starting in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

With Barack Obama's new spending proposals, the same sort of thing could happen to space travel and exploration. Critics of the new NASA budget have described the U.S. president as "cutting" manned space exploration and abandoning the hope of a return to the moon. But in fact, Obama's novel approach signals a much more far-sighted view of space travel than Washington has had to date. The U.S. government should be leading the way in rocket science and space exploration, but it should leave exploitation of those advances to the private sector.

The new space budget will provide encouragement and funding for the private sector to do what it does best -- move from technology research to technology development. To quote Rick Tumlinson , cofounder of the Space Frontier Foundation, a space advocacy group, there's no need for the government to be "driving the trucks in low-earth orbit." It should focus on opening up the far frontiers while businesspeople deliver the goods.

The budget also devotes extra resources to keeping the International Space Station in operation.  The station was slated to be shut down, a crazy notion given that the United States has invested almost $100 billion and 30 years to build it and we have just started to make use of it. We have just moved to the six-person crew it was designed for, and it's a fine initial hub for other space activities, including commerce, research, and exploration.

However, common sense doesn't always rule in politics. When the Internet opened up to commerce, there were objections from the high priests of the cyberspace, who didn't want anyone to turn their holy calling into a business.

In the case of space, there are jobs at stake and, more importantly, politicians' careers at stake. Obama is proposing to cancel some $25 billion in NASA programs -- with most of the cuts affecting jobs in Alabama, Utah, and Texas, whose congressional delegations are now up in arms.

But in the long run, the new approach will create more jobs -- and more value -- because the United States will end up with both an innovative, long-term government space program and an energetic, fast-growing private-sector market that will transport people and cargo for the U.S. government, space tourists, and non-U.S. governments. Ultimately, the costs and risks of space transport will come down, flights will increase, and markets will grow. As with the Internet, we can't predict all the uses to which commercial innovation will put this infrastructure.

From the public's point of view, it really doesn't make much sense for the government to operate low-earth-orbit space flights when the private sector is willing to take over that part of the job. The private sector will take it on for profits and focus on efficiency over radical innovation, while NASA's scientists and engineers get the opportunity to work on more speculative, long-term research and exploration projects. Right now, a variety of companies are developing and building spacecraft, exploring the production of pharmaceuticals in zero-gravity (which produces purer crystals), and devising space tourism operations.

Politically, the fuss is mainly about jobs that can help politicians get elected, and not about space exploration itself. The simple solution is some promise that the jobs will not be lost; they will simply be transformed. If no commercial company is willing to hire these workers, then perhaps they could retrain as teachers, an area where the United States desperately needs more scientists and technical people, or in medicine, which requires the same meticulous attention to detail.

But the commercial space market will need at least some of them. President Obama and all of us who want to focus on the future should not forget how good the private sector can be at creating both jobs and opportunities.

So now let me disclose my biases: I write as a member of the NASA Advisory Council  (for which I do not speak), and I have trained to be a cosmonaut courtesy of the Russian government's space program. (I would love to see the U.S. government open up the skies to civilians as well.) Furthermore, I have investments in a couple of "new space" companies that stand to benefit from greater private-sector involvement in space travel.

I got involved in all these pursuits because I'm an enthusiast for space exploration and its two key promises -- getting kids excited about math and science, and allowing humanity to escape the confines of this single planet and explore the rest of the universe. At a time when so much public discourse -- and public spending -- is focused on the here and now, it's inspiring to see some hope that the U.S. government can still support both long-term projects and the kind of entrepreneurial businesses whose activities are key to America's success.

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Dead Terrorists Tell No Tales

Is Barack Obama killing too many bad guys before the U.S. can interrogate them?

The CIA reportedly succeeded in killing the head of the Pakistani Taliban -- the most recent in a flurry of drone attacks the agency has launched in South Asia and the Middle East. Another strike in Pakistan reportedly took out one of the FBI's most wanted terrorists; another in Pakistan took out a master bomb-maker for the al Qaeda affiliate in the Philippines, Abu Sayyaf; and a strike in Yemen targeted a senior military leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group behind the Christmas Day attack (his fate has yet to be determined).

President Barack Obama's escalation of drone strikes is one area in the counterterrorism fight where he has earned plaudits from even his most vocal critics on the right. Hold the applause. Obama's escalation of the "Predator War" comes at the very same time he has eliminated the CIA's capability to capture senior terrorist leaders alive and interrogate them for information on new attacks. The Predator has become for President Obama what the cruise missile was to President Bill Clinton -- an easy way to appear like he is taking tough action against terrorists, when he is really shying away from the hard decisions needed to protect the United States.

To be sure, unmanned drones are critical in the struggle against al Qaeda. They allow the United States to reach terrorists hiding in remote regions where it would be difficult for special operations forces to reach them, or to act on perishable intelligence when the only choice is to kill a terrorist or lose him. Constantly hovering Predator (or Reaper) drones also have a psychological effect on the enemy, forcing al Qaeda leaders to live in fear and spend time focusing on self-preservation that would otherwise be used planning the next attack. All this is for the good.

The problem is that Obama is increasingly using drone strikes as a substitute for operations to bring terrorist leaders in alive for questioning -- and that is putting the country at risk. As one high-ranking CIA official explained to me, in an interview for my book Courting Disaster, "In the wake of 9/11, [the CIA] put forward a program that had a lethal component to strike back at the people who did this. But the other component was to prevent this kind of catastrophe from happening again. And for that, killing people -- especially killing senior al Qaeda leaders -- is potentially counterproductive in that we can't know or learn of future attacks. You can't kill them all, and you don't want to kill them all from an intelligence standpoint. We needed to know what they knew."

In the years after the 9/11 attacks, the CIA worked with Pakistani and other intelligence services to hunt down senior terrorist leaders and take them in for interrogation. Among those captured were men like Abu Zubaydah, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Ammar al-Baluchi, Walid bin Attash, Riduan Isamuddin (aka "Hambali"), Bashir bin Lap, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, Abu Faraj al-Libbi, Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, and others. In all, about 100 terrorists were detained and questioned by the CIA. And the information they provided helped break up terrorist cells that were planning to blow up the U.S. Consulate in Karachi and the U.S. Marine camp in Djibouti; explode seven airplanes flying across the Atlantic from London to cities in North America; and fly hijacked airplanes into Heathrow Airport, London's financial district, and the Library Tower in Los Angeles.

Today, the Obama administration is no longer attempting to capture men like these alive; it is simply killing them. This may be satisfying, but it comes at a price. With every drone strike that vaporizes a senior al Qaeda leader, actionable intelligence is vaporized along with him. Dead terrorists can't tell you their plans to strike America.

The recent strike on Qasim al-Raymi, a senior military leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, is a case in point. After having been caught blind by this terrorist network's near success in blowing up an airplane over Detroit, why not try to capture and interrogate its senior leaders alive instead of killing them? Wouldn't it make sense to get these men to reveal whom they have trained, where they have been deployed, and what their plans are for the next attack? But the Obama administration is not even trying to do this.

Obama's drone campaign is costing the United States vital intelligence, and it has also exposed him to the charge of hypocrisy. The president has claimed the moral high ground in eliminating the CIA's enhanced interrogation program, saying that he rejects the "the false choice between our security and our ideals." Yet when Obama orders a Predator or Reaper strike, he is often signing the death warrant for the women and children who will be killed alongside the target -- individuals whose only sin is that they are married to, or the children of, a terrorist. Is this not a choice between security and ideals? And why is it a morally superior choice? Is it really more in keeping with American ideals to kill a terrorist and the innocent people around him, when the United States might instead spare the innocent, capture the same terrorist alive, and get intelligence from him that could potentially save many other innocent lives as well?

It is true that Obama's predecessor George W. Bush also reportedly increased the use of drone strikes against senior terrorist leaders toward the end of his term. But the Bush administration also maintained and exercised the CIA's capability to capture and interrogate such leaders. Obama has now dramatically escalated drone strikes while eliminating what is arguably the most important and successful intelligence programs in the war on terror. This is not a sign of Obama's seriousness. To the contrary, he is using drones as cover for his dangerous decision to eliminate the CIA's capability to take terrorist leaders in alive and question them effectively for actionable intelligence. That is nothing to praise.

When Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was located in 2003, the United States did not send a Predator to kill him. It captured him alive and got him to give up the details of the plots he had set in motion. That decision saved thousands of lives. The fact that Obama's administration no longer does this when it locates senior terrorist leaders today means the president is voluntarily sacrificing intelligence that could protect the American people -- and that the U.S. homeland is at greater risk of a terrorist attack.

Rob Jensen/USAF via Getty Images