THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 76, June 12, 2000
NASA Delenda Est
There are many liberty-minded individualists who are enthusiastic about human settlement of space. After all, once we defeat taxes, death, and the weather (pretty much in that order) each of us will have more resources and time to devote to exploring the universe. Most of it, as you have no doubt noticed, is not on this planet.
Unfortunately, in our enthusiasm for space, many of us have cheered the efforts of NASA. In fact, I've heard hard core libertarians espouse the position that NASA is a rare example of a government agency which can actually do things right. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.
NASA is responsible for the elimination of all launch systems that might have competed with the Space Shuttle. As a matter of policy from 1972 to 1986, NASA eliminated funding for competing launch systems, undercut commercial operations by offering free launches, stopped production on its own fleet of expendable launch vehicles, and continues to distort the market for launch services by substantially discounting the price of its shuttle. Even in the area of weightless flight, achieved with an aircraft flying a parabolic trajectory, NASA recently undercut a commercial provider by offering free flights on a NASA aircraft to the makers of the film Apollo 13. (VHS, DVD)
NASA has also refused to consider commercial alternatives to space station development. Funding for the Industrial Space Facility was eliminated in 1988, largely due to NASA fears that it would compete with the space station (then scheduled to be in orbit by 1992). The Industrial Space Facility represented a commercial alternative that would have provided an orbital habitat by 1990 at a far lower cost, with a better power system and modular design for expansion.
Individuals interested in space development would do themselves a favor by calling for the immediate elimination of NASA's entire budget. Such a request may be considered a bizarre form of altruism by others, which is fine if it encourages them to proceed quickly. However, just as the labor policies of government were demonstrated by Ludwig von Mises to cause unemployment as a mass phenomenon, so too the space policies of government make the opening of the space frontier an impossibility.
What is needed for humans to explore, exploit, and settle other planets? Quite simply, the only need is for lower cost access to space. We have the understanding and technology to survive in space, utilize its unique characteristics in industrial applications, and turn the resources of lifeless planets and planetoids into new homes for ourselves and other plants and animals of our choosing.
The vision of Gerard K. O'Neill as explained in his book The High Frontier is one possible direction for space development to take. He foresaw tremendous space settlements miles in length composed of materials found in space, rotated to simulate gravity, and inhabited by all the creatures we enjoy having with us on Earth. He saw these enormous space settlements funded by the development of solar energy from space and the exploitation of weightlessness and vacuum for industrial processes. He founded an independent, private research organization, the Space Studies Institute to begin the necessary experiments to improve the technologies needed for such ventures. His hope was that his other brainchild, a satellite position finding system would produce a stream of profits from his company Geostar to help finance the research at Space Studies. Unfortunately, it was not to be.
Just before his death, O'Neill sounded a hopeful note. He pointed out that the resistance of NASA to outside influence was increasing, and that their rigid pursuit of doctrine set down almost 40 years ago by Werner von Braun was becoming ever more stringent. As a physicist, O'Neill was familiar with the workings of complex mechanical structures. He pointed out that a system is most rigid just prior to failure. By analogy, the current rigidity of NASA might be a sign of change in the near future.
Unfortunately, NASA's demise has not come about as rapidly as we might wish. And without that demise, with NASA continuing to fly the space shuttle and continuing to design and redesign a space station they promise to one day begin launching, we must see our own dreams of spaceflight wither on the vine. For it is the presence of the government in the marketplace which exerts the greatest distortion. As long as NASA has existed, the commercial development of space transportation has been severely hampered, and as long as NASA continues to exist, that constraint will not be lifted.
How can we hope for low cost access to space if we depend upon the government to develop it? Of course, we cannot have any hope in that situation. The government has no mechanism for controlling cost. At best, government can expend resources to achieve a specific goal. At no time can it establish cost effective alternatives. It simply lacks the primary means of cost control, the power of market forces. Moreover, we cannot hope for overseas development of low cost launch services as long as governments dominate space efforts around the world. Even in instances where very low cost launches have been offered, for instance by the People's Republic of China's Long March Industries, US policy has been to limit access to our market, eliminating any spur to domestic competitiveness and effectively protecting the ineptitude of our space industry.
Long ago, a Roman statesman once illustrated his hatred of a particular nation state by ending every speech with the admonishment, "Carthago delenda est," or "Carthage must be destroyed." Ultimately, his view prevailed, and Roman legions ransacked Carthage and sowed salt in the fields outside the city to prevent people from living there. Clearly, a comparison of the attributes of Rome and Carthage would suggest that the destruction of Carthage was no boon to liberty. Nevertheless, it is time for space enthusiasts to be clear about where their interests lie.
It is time to call for an end to NASA. I am of the opinion that NASA must be destroyed.