REGISTER VIEWPOINT: Plum Brook and the business of space

Constellation is no more, but the stars are there for Erie County if only we have the sense to grab for them. Assumin
Sandusky Register Staff
May 13, 2010

Constellation is no more, but the stars are there for Erie County if only we have the sense to grab for them.

Assuming Congress accepts President Barack Obama's budget measures, the return to the Moon and onward to Mars won't even make it to the launch pad.

That means the spacecraft that were to have taken us there won't be built, won't need testing in NASA Plum Brook's immense space environment chamber, the Space Power Facility whose dome dominates the landscape in Oxford Township.

But does it mean the end of the tech-economy dreams Erie County hung on increased activity at Plum Brook, and the proposed runway that would bring in not only that activity, but the increased business and high-end tourist travel also hoped for?

No. It doesn't have to -- because space isn't what it used to be.

There are weather satellites, communications satellites, defense satellites -- all kinds of space hardware so much a part of our lives we don't even think about it anymore -- to be put into orbit. Our technology is not yet so foolproof we don't need to test anything, and Plum Brook is one of the premier places to test space stuff.

But that's not all. If a handful of madcap entrepreneurs have their way, the High Frontier of John F. Kennedy will no longer be the near-exclusive domain of government projects. Fueled by dreams of tourism and, eventually, industry, those entrepreneurs are following the paths blazed by tax-funded space programs. The privately funded SpaceShipOne, already ensconsed in the Smithsonian within sight of the Apollo 11 moonship, is likely only the first. And although the next generation of rocketships are being put through their paces in the western deserts (and even, if one dream comes to pass, at the annual air races in Reno, Nev.), it's not hard to imagine some of that hardware getting its simulated shakedown cruise under the dome in Oxford Township.

We've said this before: NASA could return to its roots as a technological adviser to those developing new tech on the private dime, the same way its predecessor agency, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, provided the research for those who saw money in airplanes.

But here's where our economic development engines should really rev up: Private businesses understand competition in a way governments can't even conceive of, and it's here where this region can make its case. Plum Brook is an asset -- not only a technological and national asset, but an economic one. Its availability and capability are, and ought to be, selling points. And we should be selling.