THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 294, October 24, 2004
"Scare the crap out of the statists!"
Give Me Some Space
Special to TLE
Anyone who knows me knows that I'm a NASA nut. In fact, a significant number of people who don't know me know that I'm a NASA nut. But just because I'm a nut doesn't mean I'm crazy!
I'm all too well aware that NASA is a government agency funded by tax dollars. I'm a little unhappy about the former given that the word "government" doesn't often appear next to a word like "innovative" or efficient," and an agency like NASA needs to be both. I'm a lot unhappy about the latter because, though I think the space program is invaluable, I'm not fond of the government forcing people to hand over their hard-earned cash for much of anything outside legitimate national defense.
The truth is that I'm in love with the idea of space study and exploration in general. I'm in love with NASA because, since the late 1950's, it's been America's all-of-our-space-eggs-in-one-basket agency. Though that's lamentable, it didn't mitigate my happiness at the successful Mars Pathfinder landing when I was fortunate enough to be at a NASA facility to hear the first return signals come back live; and it didn't assuage my pain when the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated in the blue skies above Texas and I wept along with the other early shoppers who were watching the display TVs in our local Wal Mart.
On October 4, and separated by mere hours, I found my vision blurred again by tears of both sheer joy and gentle sorrow. Only this time, the events causing such emotions were ones we might call historic bookends, and ironic ones at that. On the morning of October 4, as USA Today put it, a private [space]craft launches a new era. Within hours, that news was poignantly contrasted with the notice that one of the original Mercury astronauts, Gordon Cooper, had died. As the old guard and NASA's exclusivity slowly passes away, it's abundantly clear that a new and frankly exciting space race has begun.
SpaceShipOne, the odd looking craft that managed to reach the lower reaches of space three times in recent weekstwice within a matter of days to win the Ansari X Prizewas the first civilian effort to make it into space. (In what I consider a decent gesture, NASA gave both of the pilots who flew the ship on its historic flights a pair of astronaut wings). While SpaceShipOne has all of the honor and prestige of being first, it's not likely to be the last. At least two other groups involved in the X-Prize competition are close enough to functionality to claim to be planning regular flight service for tourists within the next few years. Meanwhile, Scaled Compositesthe proud builder of SpaceShipOnehas already contracted with Richard Branson (the Virgin Airlines mogul) to provide ships for his just-announced Virgin Galactic flight service. Space travelat least on a very limited basisis finally poised to become a truly civilian effort.
And now that civilians are involved, can capitalism be far behind? Probably not in America, no. In fact, one columnist has already called space the final free market; though investors are hesitant until the technology is further proven, Mr. Branson is likely only at the head of the curve rather than the single point of interest. Investing in private space travel is almost certainly on the way just as soon as investors get a grasp on the many potential money-makers involved in such ventures.
These considerations of the free market in space and the accompanying investments brings me back to NASA and its bloated budgets, scaled back goals, and aging and expensive space shuttle fleet. Worst of all is the fact that NASA, after some fifty years as a government agency, has been largely subsumed by a government culture which is, in turn, damping down those all important traits of "innovative" and "efficient" that are so valuable.
I don't argue that research and development done well and properly costs a lot (former NASA Administrator Dan Goldin's "better, faster, cheaper" policies were the direct cause of some spectacular and unfortunate failures). Though I hate that some ambitious NASA projects have been cancelled or postponed due to cost, I understand the necessity for some of the cuts. And as far as the shuttle goes, well, I just visited the Space Shuttle Enterprise on display at the newest National Air and Space Museum building, and can tell you that she's one of the most wrenchingly beautiful things I've ever seen. But she's old. She's built from 1960's dream designs and 1970's lowest-bidder technology. And newer ships, long on the drawing boards, are going nowhere largely due to the substantial expense that would be involved and Congress' hesitation to spend the money (it's too bad Congress doesn't hesitate to spend money on so many other less valuable things, too, but I digress...)
Some free market boosters have crowed, "SpaceShipOne, NASA Nothing!" I only agree with half of that statement. Without NASA, there would probably have been little or no space effort at all, and certainly not one that's reached the heights it has in a relatively few years (at least we can be comforted by the knowledge that the deep pockets of the American taxpayer have accomplished something worthwhile). And though SpaceShipOne relied on some new technologies, it also borrowed from those things NASA dreamed of and did first. And that, my friends, tells us how we can save NASA and its valuable work even while we get rid of NASA and its tax dollar spending. Consider:
I've met with some NASA engineers personally, and I've read more than a few firsthand accounts of others involved in varying ways with NASA. Those men and women are smarter and more creative than most of us have ever dreamed of being. They could probably build a machine that would fly around the world on a cup of water if someone gave them enough time, paperclips, and duct tape. Their dedication is admirable; their genius is, with surprising frequency, astounding. Aside from direct application for space exploration of that dedication and genius, I've seen for myself some of the amazing technological spin-offs that have resulted from NASA research (heart pumps based on jet engine turbines, de-icing equipment now standard on all jetliners, quicker freezing and thus better preservation of food thanks to low temperature fuel studies, and much, much more). These spin-offs are essentially handed to private industry because, well, they were created with tax dollars in the first place.
So let's privatize NASA. If the military wants to launch a satellite, it can pay NASA for the fuel, crew, and facility. If government researchers want to study climate change, they can ante up for the privilege. If a doctor wants to watch a surgery around the world in real time, there's a charge for the satellite time. If Lockheed-Martin wants to have a wing design tested in a wind tunnel, it can rent the building and its expert staff. If pharmaceutical companies want time on the International Space Station to manufacture new or different compounds, they can pay for trip and the stay. And so on.
NASA's work in the past has been incredibly useful to a wide spectrum of industries; there's no reason to suspect it won't be in the future. They might as well get paidand paid as well as they deservefor it. (Many people don't know just how important and widespread NASA's contributions to everyday life have been, largely due to a lack of publicity. As a private corporation, you can bet NASA's past public relations failings will be replaced by a slick and very effective advertising program, something the free market has come to expect and which would quite honestly do NASA a world of good.)
The bottom line here is that SpaceShipOne's accomplishment doesn't mean you and I can go into orbit tomorrow (more's the pity), though it certainly shows us that that day is coming relatively soon. But it also doesn't mean that NASA is obsolete. It's apparent that the free market is poised send SpaceShipOne to new heights (assuming the threat of overweening government regulation doesn't ruin these smaller agencies, too). Wouldn't it be a terrible shame if we didn't at least try to let the free market do the same for NASA? A substantial infrastructure of equipment and prodigious talent is already in place there; let's see it employed to its fullest potential rather than merely used as much as possible under what's become grinding bureaucratic and regulatory restraint.
The flight of SpaceShipOne made headline news around the world. Virgin Galactic has already sold a significant number of tickets for its maiden flights. That shows that SpaceShipOne has proved not only that civilian space flight is on the way, but that many ordinary people are interested in space. They're just not interested in big-government bureaucratic space. And whatever my undying passions for the greater universe out there may be, neither am I.
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