I'd prefer to disband NASA and incentivize commercial development in space. Government(any government) is too risk adverse, too bureaucratic, too inefficient, and too uncreative to be in charge of taking us into space.
For all the lessons NASA learned, all the improvements in technology, materials and engineering, the price to put a pound of weight into orbit did not drop. In fact it increased once we moved from the Saturn Vs to the Shuttle. And that is a failure that should doom NASA to the ash-heap of history. And there have been many other missed opportunities.
The government has had many opportunities to turn over civilian space activities to the private sector. In the 1970s, American Rocket Co. was one of the private enterprises that wanted to sell launch services to NASA and private businesses. But NASA was moving from science to freight hauling, and planned to monopolize government payloads on the shuttle and subsidize launches of private cargo as well. The agency thus turned down American Rocket.
In the late 1980s, Space Industries of Houston offered, for no more than $750 million, to launch a ministation that could carry government and other payloads at least a decade before NASA's station went into operation. (NASA's station currently comes with a price tag of nearly $100 billion for development, construction and operations.) NASA, not wishing to create its own competition, declined Space Industries' offer.
In 1987 and 1988, a Commerce Department-led interagency working group considered the feasibility of offering a one-time prize and a promise of rent to any firm or consortium that could deliver a permanent manned moon base. When asked whether such a base were realistic, private-sector representatives answered yes -- but only if NASA wasn't involved. That plan was quickly scuttled.
Each shuttle carries a 17-story external fuel tank 98 percent of the distance into orbit before dropping it into the ocean; NASA could easily -- and with little additional cost -- have promoted private space enterprise by putting those fuel tanks into orbit. With nearly 90 shuttle flights to date, platforms -- with a total of 27 acres of interior space -- could be in orbit today.
These could be homesteaded by the private sector for hospitals to study a weightless Mr. Glenn or for any other use one could dream of. But then a $100 billion government station would be unnecessary.
As long as NASA dominates civilian space efforts, little progress will be made toward inexpensive manned space travel. The lesson of Mr. Glenn's second flight is that space enthusiasts ignore economics at their peril.
Get government out of the way and let the private sector have a try.