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The Next Frontier

Pictured: the International Space Station. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Pictured: the International Space Station. Photo courtesy of NASA.

American University School of Public Affairs professor Howard McCurdy recently got special recognition for his work in the field of space policy. He’s been honored with the American Astronautical Society’s John F. Kennedy Astronautics Award for 2013, given for outstanding promotion of the nation’s space programs. A list of previous award winners reads like a NASA hall of fame, including former astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Sally Ride, and science writer Carl Sagan. Other honorees have included members of Congress and news legend Walter Cronkite.

In addition, NASA has tapped McCurdy to form a space policy group to examine how public-private partnerships can foster innovation in space flight.

Climbing Goes Commercial

With his expertise in science policy, McCurdy has authored books such as Space and the American Imagination and Faster, Better, Cheaper: Low-Cost Innovation in the U.S. Space Program.

The space policy group work is an outgrowth of an earlier grant he received from NASA. As part of a larger project to analyze other endeavors that could provide lessons for space exploration, McCurdy researched Mt. Everest climbing expeditions. This culminated in his May 2013 report, “The Economics of Innovation: Mountaineering and the American Space Program.”

McCurdy found that increased knowledge of the terrain, along with advances in climbing technology, equipment, transportation, and weather forecasting, changed the nature of mountaineering in the Himalayas. Big expeditions gave way to self-financed commercial climbs. An emerging commercial market led to reductions in cost, price, and risk.

Hastening the process of commercialization, mountaineers successfully raised money from a variety of sources. Space proponents, in contrast, mostly relied on government funding. In an interview, McCurdy says this was partly a function of the Cold War and World War II.

“There were only a few specialists in rocketry who knew how to build them. Two-thirds of them came to the United States; one-third of them went to Russia. But now that talent is widespread in the industry,” he says.

A History of Innovation

As a way to advance space policy in the 21st century, McCurdy emphasizes the importance of innovation. In looking to the past, he explains how the U.S. has made travel cheaper and easier over time.

“My great-grandfather walked to Oregon in 1866 with his family. That’s how you got across the country. It took him nine, ten months. The Transcontinental Railroad from Council Bluffs, Iowa to San Francisco cut that to five to seven days. I just flew back here to Washington, D.C. from Seattle. It took me four to five hours,” he says.

Since the space shuttle program ended in 2011, there have been plenty of questions about the future of space exploration. McCurdy thinks public-private partnerships could facilitate the next step. The space policy group will study whether public-private partnerships will actually save money, and when these partnerships might be applicable.

A public-private partnership could be quite different from the classic government space project. “In the traditional NASA contract, some engineer at some field center makes a drawing of a spaceship and a rocket, and hands it to a contractor and says ‘build this.’ With the public-private partnership, it’s like going down to United Airlines and buying a ticket to Seattle. It’s their plane. It’s their design,” McCurdy says. “That way the people who are designing the hardware or designing the mission…they’ve got their own money in it. And so they have an incentive not to spend a lot of that money.”

Corporations have already moved into the space race. In 2012, SpaceX became the first private company to dock a spacecraft at the International Space Station (ISS), and the rocket manufacturer continues to bring cargo to the ISS through a contract with NASA.  

Manifest Destiny

McCurdy’s interest in astronomy and rocketry has evolved from a boyhood hobby to a professional passion. While growing up, he even built small rockets. “We did not have FAA clearance or tail numbers for our rocketry. No, this was strictly clandestine,” he jokes.

The American public’s enthusiasm for space travel has been episodic, and astronauts are no longer household names like they were during the 1960s. Yet, as McCurdy points out, people might still know the names of robots on Mars (“Opportunity,” “Spirit,” etc.).

He believes humans have a deeply-ingrained impetus to explore the next frontier. “The interest in space exploration will continue. It’s not a majority of the public. Maybe 30 percent, but that’s quite a few,” he says. “I think it’s very preeminent among people who’ve got a migration impulse. And that’s pretty widespread in the human race. We just want to go somewhere, and we’re running out of places on the surface of the Earth to go.”