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How Obama brought capitalism to outer space

In 2010, nearly 50 years after John F. Kennedy called for the United States to send a man to the moon, President Obama went to the Kennedy Space Center, to set a new course. Under George W. Bush, the agency had been working on another lunar mission. But now, with Buzz Aldrin sitting in the audience, Obama had a blunt message about those plans: “We’ve been there before. Buzz has been there. There’s a lot more space to explore, and a lot more to learn when we do.”

Instead of going to the moon, the U.S. would go to Mars.

Now, six years after that speech, as he nears the end of his presidency, Obama is bookending his charge by doubling down on NASA’s plan to get to Mars, even though space is a topic he has rarely addressed publicly. In an op-ed published by CNN Tuesday morning ahead of the White House Frontiers Conference in Pittsburgh, he reiterated his administration’s goal of “sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time.”

But while Mars remains years, if not decades away, Obama's true legacy may be something altogether different: the standing up of a commercial space industry that has ended the government’s monopoly on space.

When the space shuttle was retired in 2011, NASA looked to the commercial sector to fly its astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station, fertilizing the industry with billions of dollars in contracts. And in the past few years, the industry has begun to blossom, reinvigorating interest in space with dramatic landings of rockets on ships with other, unprecedented feats.

“Just five years ago, U.S. companies were shut out of the global commercial launch market,” Obama wrote. “Today, thanks to groundwork laid by the men and women of NASA, they own more than a third of it. More than 1,000 companies across nearly all 50 states are working on private space initiatives.”

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeffrey P. Bezos’s Blue Origin promise suborbital tourist flights within a couple of years. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.) SpaceX and Boeing are working toward flying astronauts to the space station. Bigelow Aerospace is building inflatable habitats that could ultimately succeed the station. In fact, one of the habitats is currently attached to the station.

“It will become one of the great ironies in the history of exploration into space that someone many politicians called a socialist was a champion for the possibilities of capitalism in space,” said James Muncy, a space policy analyst at PoliSpace, a consulting firm. Obama “stepped in and said we're going to try public private partnerships, and it is working.”

While the high-profile billionaires get the most attention, there are many companies pushing the frontiers. Sierra Nevada Corp., another of NASA’s beneficiaries, just announced that it had signed a deal with the United Nations to fly its first-ever space mission. Earlier this year, Moon Express, which is vying for the $20 million Google Lunar XPrize, received permission to send a robotic lander on the moon, the first commercial company to get such permission from the U.S. government.

And there have been a proliferation of companies, such as Vector Space Systems and Rocketlab that plan to fly small satellites, some as tiny as a shoebox.

On Tuesday, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden wrote in a blog post that the agency plans to allow commercial companies to use a “docking port” on the space station in an effort to help create “one or more future commercial stations in low Earth orbit” that would be ready to take over then the space station is retired.

There is still no self-sustaining economy to keep commercial space companies alive, many of which would wither without the support of NASA or the billionaires that are funding them with their own money. And the two companies that have the contracts to restore human space travel from U.S. soil both have suffered setbacks and delays.

Boeing recently confirmed an Aviation Week report that because of technical issues with its Starliner spacecraft it was pushing back flights six months and hopes to fly by the end of 2018. SpaceX, the other company NASA is relying on to fly its astronauts, had its Falcon 9 rocket blow up last month and still doesn’t know exactly why.

NASA’s own vehicles, the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft, have had their own troubles. The Government Accountability Office recently warned that the $23 billion program faces additional potential cost overruns and schedule delays. And it noted in a report that NASA’s attempts over the past two decades to develop a system to take astronauts to deep space “have ultimately been unsuccessful.”

NASA has always relied on its contractors, and Obama conceded that government cannot do it alone: “Getting to Mars will require continued cooperation between government and private innovators,” he wrote.

That has traditionally been left to major players, such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Aerojet Rocketdyne and Orbital ATK, who are helping NASA build the hardware for a Mars journey. But recently Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, announced his company’s plans to get to the Red Planet. He made it clear, though, the company couldn’t do it alone and the endeavor would ultimately have to be a “public-private partnership.”

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