Transportation Expert Analyzes Economics of ‘The Final Frontier’

Posted: July 2, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

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Mason’s Center for Aerospace Policy Research manages NASA’s Engineering Training Program and recommends policies to further space research.
NASA’s Virtual Airport Tower, Ames Research Center, Moffet Field, Calif. Photo courtesy of NASA

By Colleen Kearney Rich

Ken Button’s office in the Finley Building on the Fairfax Campus is sparsely decorated. You won’t find a desk full of ships or planes as you might find in the office of another transportation expert.

“People in my field frequently decorate their offices with what fascinates them — boats, planes, cars. They almost become lobbyists for a certain kind of transportation,” he says. “I am more interested in the economics of moving things. I don’t care how it is done, as long as it is done efficiently.”

What you will find in the office are shelves full of books and journals. Button is the editor of two academic journals, Transportation Research and the Journal of Air Transport Management, as well as the book series, Transport Economics, Management and Policy, published by Edward Elgar.

Then there are the books he has written, the papers published in various journals throughout the field, and the reports from the numerous research projects with which he has been involved.

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Ken Button is the director of the Center for Aerospace Policy Research, which has been studying current space exploration programs.”
Photo by Evan Cantwell

As a prominent analyst, Button finds himself called upon to weigh in on any number of subjects, from nonstop flights from Dulles to China to port security to space exploration. It is the topic of space exploration that kept Button and his Center for Aerospace Policy Research quite busy recently.

Space Research and Public Policy

The center, which Button directs, is underwritten in part by a multiyear contract with NASA worth tens of millions of dollars. In addition to managing NASA’s Engineering Training Program, the center has been conducting workshops and offering seminars that examine data about current space exploration programs, recommend policies to further space research and promote a better understanding of the commercial potential for travel into space, including tourism.

“We are at something of a watershed as far as space exploration and commercial development are concerned,” says Button. “It is essential that the issues are fully understood and debated if we are to move forward in a productive way. This is an important issue of public policy, and it is appropriate that George Mason be involved.”

The center has been in existence for about four years, but Button did work with NASA prior to that. “We also have traditionally done a lot of work on the aviation side of things for 10 years, and that also comes within the center,” adds Button.

Mason’s proximity to Washington, D.C., where NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration are headquartered and space policy is made, is another reason Mason is home to the center.

Last fall, the center teamed up with the nonprofit Center for Strategic and International Studies and the American Astronautical Society to host a two-day international conference at Mason’s Arlington Campus. The conference examined ways the “space community” can learn from other sectors in areas such as public–private partnerships and international cooperation.

“[NASA] has problems in deciding what it wants to do and how to fund it, and how much to link up internationally,” he says. “NASA was founded basically to get America on the moon. These days, it has sort of lost its way, and it doesn’t have the infinite resources it once did.”

Getting Youth Interested in Space

In addition, the center released an important in-depth workshop report, “Building and Maintaining the Constituency for Long-Term Space Exploration.” Participants at the NASA, Northrop Grumman and Boeing-supported workshop reviewed market research data on the various dimensions of public support for space exploration and looked at ways to sustain and enhance it.

Workshop discussions indicated that the older “Apollo” generation is much more supportive of space exploration than is the younger generation. Recent studies have shown that young people in the United States have little or no interest in future missions to the moon or Mars. The workshop report noted that such a finding “is critical for garnering and increasing support for long-term exploration.”

“Space doesn’t grab the attention of people like it used to,” says Button. “These days, the kids have all this virtual reality on television, and someone going to the moon or Mars doesn’t seem very exciting.” NASA has already begun using web sites such as YouTube.com and networks such as MTV as tools to communicate with this segment of the population and attempt to garner their interest.

The Economics of Space Exploration

According to Button, what it comes down to is that NASA needs to function more like a business. He feels it formed at a time when space exploration was seen as a strategic and political response to the Soviet bloc and had a fairly clear objective — getting a man on the moon. The modern world is more complicated, and Button feels that the U.S. space program is still struggling to find its role.

The center also sponsored a seminar with the American Astronautical Society and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics that highlighted global space exploration objectives, plans and industrial capabilities and the initial development of a single integrated database of space exploration activities worldwide.

An economist at heart, Button sees his role in the policy-making process as that of a doctor. He provides his “diagnosis,” or analysis of the situation, which he considers “pretty neutral.”

“People can like or not like what I have to say,” he says. “I don’t tell people what they should do. Ultimately, it is up to the politicians to decide what they want to do.”

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