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.