KPCC's business analyst Mark Lacter tells us how Curiosity's trip to Mars could inspire everyday products.
Steve Julian: Mark, putting aside the excitement of the successful Mars landing, what does it mean for the space business?
Mark Lacter: Well, the shuttle program is over, Steve, and NASA has been switching gears to focus on exactly this kind of advanced exploration. Of course, you still need to launch satellites into orbit, and ferry cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station - in other words, you still need routine space transportation. So, the plan is to let the private sector handle those trips, which is why NASA has been awarding millions of dollars in development money. One of the big winners so far is Space X, that's the Hawthorne-based company that was founded by the billionaire Elon Musk. Last May, Space X completed a successful unmanned mission to the International Space Station - it's part of a $1.6 billion contract with NASA - and, if all goes according to plan, there will be additional unmanned trips. And just last week, the space agency awarded Space X another half-a-billion dollars to develop rockets and spacecraft for manned launches.
Julian: Who else is in the mix?
Lacter: A familiar name, Boeing - it received about the same amount of seed money. Both companies are aiming for test flights in the next three or four years. Actually, there are other companies around the country - including quite a few in the Mojave area - that are looking to make inroads in this new kind of space race. All of which could be good news for the aerospace business in Southern California, which lost thousands of jobs after the end of the Cold War.
Julian: I suppose the big question is whether the private sector can turn space transportation into a viable business.
Lacter: That's right. Now Space X figures that if it can make vehicles a lot cheaper than when the government was in charge, it'll be able to run more missions, which was the original idea with the shuttle, but which quickly proved to be unworkable. (They had wanted to send up a shuttle around twice a month, but it wound up being an average of four-and-a-HALF-times a year.) There's no telling whether a leaner, more efficient space business is going to be successful, but the old NASA hands will tell you that there's a reason they were so cautious on these missions: an awful lot can go wrong - has gone wrong. That's what these companies have to guard against.
Julian: So, how does all this fit into NASA's plans?
Lacter: Well, if the mission to Mars turns out to be a success, it could stir up enough enthusiasm to keep the space agency funded. The problem with Curiosity or any major exploration of space is that it costs a ton of money - this most recent trip to Mars is running around $2.5 billion. And given the big push in Congress to reduce spending, it becomes difficult for proponents to justify all that money.
Julian: Even with all that we can learn by going into space.
Lacter: Right, and it's a long list - starting, most obviously, with satellite technology. Think about cell phones, cable, GPS devices - none of that would be possible without the government having invested so much in satellite development. But it's more than the obvious stuff. Artificial hearts, scratch-resistant lenses, memory foam mattresses, cordless power tools - they're among the products that in one way or another the result of the space program. It's a good bet that the technology being used for the Curiosity mission will eventually make its way to commercial application.
Julian: But we're oblivious?
Lacter: Basically, yes. Very few people make the connection because it takes a long time from space to everyday use. So, when we hear about these billion-dollar budgets, there's no appreciation of what the eventual payback might be. You know, ironically, the one product most closely associated with space travel is Tang, the breakfast drink - and that wasn't even developed for NASA, as many people assume. It was first marketed by General Foods in 1959, and wasn't used by NASA until John Glenn drank it in space three years later. I think the space agency has what you would call a PR problem.
Mark Lacter is a contributing writer for Los Angeles Magazine and writes the business blog at LA Observed.com.