Some space advocates (alt.spacers or NewSpacers or whatever they call themselves these days) have been pushing the concept that NASA should “buy the ride instead of buying the rocket.” The idea is that private enterprise can do a better job of developing manned vehicles and NASA should just purchase transportation from the private sector. This has not worked in the past and probably will not work in the future.
A rough analogy would be the purchase of rides from a cab operator. The rider does not especially care whether the cab is a Checker or a Volvo, but only purchases the ride. Extend this to the space sector. NASA would hypothetically purchase rides on private sector spaceships to establish demand and drive down costs. How and on what? Assume the following: NASA announces that, effective 2011, it will purchase 7 rides to and from ISS on a monthly basis. According to the “Buy the Ride” concept, the private sector will then jump in and develop the spacecraft and off we go into the golden future. Who pays for the development of these vehicles? How does this differ from the current state except for the promise of future rides putting a bottom threshold on the launch market?
Right now, the alt.spacers appear to be expending a lot of energy whining about the lack of funding for vehicle development and how they could do much better than the private sector giants Boeing or LockMart. If they want to offer rides for sale by 2011, they should develop the vehicles now.
“Buy the Ride” appears to have an unstated agenda. That agenda is: NASA should give development money to the alt.spacers so they can develop really cool vehicles much more efficiently and cheaply than Boeing or LockMart. This is the desired goal even though the alt.spacers have no track record of delivering much hardware. This is equivalent to the current state of affairs except for advocacy of the unstated agenda and is diametric to “Buy the Ride.”
Instead, NASA, USAF, and DARPA are funding small seed-money development projects that are related to propulsion and launch operations to allow start-ups to develop and demonstrate management expertise. In addition, companies like SpaceDev and, on a smaller and privately held scale, Garvey, are executing small projects that are on a pathway to commercial orbital launches. Add SpaceX into the mix, assuming that they ultimately succeed in launching Falcon, and the end result should be additional launch capability as all of this somehow evolves a new generation of launch companies. If that happens, I predict the largely irrelevant alt.spacer peanut gallery will be claiming the credit.