A Radical Solution to America’s Moribund Space Program

by | Jan 22, 2004

After years of declining budgets, public apathy, and failed missions, NASA has gotten a big boost from the Bush Administration’s recent promises of extravagant missions to permanently settle the moon and eventually explore Mars. No one knows what it would cost, but a similar idea in 1989 was estimated to cost up to $500 billion. […]

After years of declining budgets, public apathy, and failed missions, NASA has gotten a big boost from the Bush Administration’s recent promises of extravagant missions to permanently settle the moon and eventually explore Mars. No one knows what it would cost, but a similar idea in 1989 was estimated to cost up to $500 billion.

Rather than lavishing money on new missions of dubious value, President Bush should consider a truly radical solution for America’s moribund space program: privatize it.

There is a contradiction at the heart of the space program: space exploration, as the grandest of man’s technological advancements, requires the kind of bold innovation possible only to minds left free to pursue the best of their thinking and judgment. Yet by placing the space program under governmental funding, we necessarily place it at the mercy of governmental whim. The results are written all over the past twenty years of NASA’s history: the space program is a political animal, marked by shifting, inconsistent, and ill-defined goals.

Cartoon by Cox and Forkum

It’s also interesting that for all the prattling about competition being so important and antitrust being the Magna Charta of free enterprise, few take issue with the government’s monopoly in space. What businessman could hope to compete with the government lifting payloads into space? How high is the regulatory burden placed on vehicles built and launched by private enterprise? Where the justice in a tax-fed government agency deciding what is to be the priority in mankind’s development of space?

But perhaps the cruelest aspect of the government’s involvement in space is the fate of the scientists and engineers who do produce incredible technological achievements. The men and women who make spaceflight possible are heroic. Yet as the Apollo space program showed, when these engineers and scientists achieve all that is asked of them, they will see their budgets slashed and their achievements ignored. I say the work of these heroes ought not to hinge on the political whims of the day.

And today’s space program does look like an exercise in whim worship. What value comes from re-landing men on the moon, or landing men on Mars, when robotic probes can more efficiently carry out the mission? Why do we have a space station that is more a platform for giving idle ex-Soviet space engineers something to do with themselves than a means for engaging in groundbreaking scientific research? Freedom in space–freedom from government funding, control and prioritization–would put the best minds where they would bring the most value, and not subject these minds to the misbegotten whims of their political masters.

The pioneering of space is an incredible achievement of mankind and of the United States in particular. It is said that this renewed interest in space comes off the heels of the Columbia disaster, and is meant to serve as a tribute to their memory. Perhaps, but I say the best tribute to the heroes of space exploration, both living and dead, would be bring to wilds of space the same level of freedom that once made it possible for men to settle the wilds of the American continent.

The space shuttle was built and maintained to please clashing constituencies, not to do a clearly defined job for which there was an economic and technical need. The shuttle was to launch satellites for the Department of Defense and private contractors–which could be done more cheaply by lightweight, disposable rockets. It was to carry scientific experiments–which could be done more efficiently by unmanned vehicles. But one “need” came before all technical issues:

NASA’s political need for showy manned vehicles. The result, as great a technical achievement as it is, was an over-sized, over-complicated, over-budget, overly dangerous vehicle that does everything poorly and nothing well.

Indeed, the space shuttle program was supposed to be phased out years ago, but the search for its replacement has been halted, largely because space contractors enjoy collecting on the overpriced shuttle without the expense and bother of researching cheaper alternatives. A private industry could have fired them–but not so in a government project, with home-district congressmen to lobby on their behalf.

There is reason to believe that the political nature of the space program may have even been directly responsible for the Columbia disaster. Fox News reported that NASA chose to stick with non-Freon-based foam insulation on the booster rockets, despite evidence that this type of foam causes up to 11 times as much damage to thermal tiles as the older, Freon-based foam. Although NASA was exempted from the restrictions on Freon use, which environmentalists believe causes ozone depletion, and despite the fact that the amount of Freon released by NASA’s rockets would have been trivial, the space agency elected to stick with the politically correct foam.

It is impossible to integrate the contradictory. To whatever extent an engineer is forced to base his decisions, not on the realities of science but on the arbitrary, unpredictable, and often impossible demands of a politicized system, he is stymied. Yet this politicizing is an unavoidable consequence of governmental control over scientific research and development.

Nor would it be difficult to spur the private exploration of space.

Phase out government involvement in space exploration, and the free market will work to produce whatever there is demand for, just as it now does with traditional aircraft, both military and civilian.

Develop a system of property rights to any stellar body reached and exploited by an American company, and profit-minded business will have the incentive to make it happen.

We often hear that the most ambitious projects can only be undertaken by government, but in fact the opposite is true. The more ambitious a project is, the more it demands to be broken into achievable, profit-making steps–and freed from the unavoidable politicizing of government-controlled science. If space development is to be transformed from an expensive national bauble whose central purpose is to assert national pride to a practical industry with real and direct benefits, it will only be by unleashing the creative force of free and rational minds.

Extending man’s reach into space is not, as some have claimed, our “destiny.” Standing between us and the stars are enormous technical difficulties, the solution of which will require even more heroic determination than that which tamed the seas and the continents. But first, we must make a fundamental choice: will America continue to hold its best engineering minds captive to politics, or will we set them free?

Copyright 2004 Ayn Rand Institute. All rights reserved. That the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) has granted permission to Capitalism Magazine to republish this article, does not mean ARI necessarily endorses or agrees with the other content on this website.

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Robert Garmong, Ph.D. in philosophy, was a writer for the Ayn Rand Institute from 2003 to 2004. The Institute promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.

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