As NASA scrambles to make the July 31 window for the troubled launch of space shuttle Discovery, we should recall the first privately funded manned spacecraft, SpaceShipOne, which over a year ago shattered more than the boundary of outer space: it destroyed forever the myth that space exploration can only be done by the government.
Two years ago, a Bush Administration panel on space exploration recommended that NASA increase the role of private contractors in the push to permanently settle the moon and eventually explore Mars. Unfortunately, it appears unlikely that NASA will consider the true free-market solution for America’s expensive space program: complete privatization.
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 creative thinking and judgment. Yet, by funding the space program through taxation, we necessarily place it at the mercy of bureaucratic 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.
The space shuttle was built and maintained to please clashing special interest groups, 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 eleven 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–it’s been happening, quietly, for years. The free market works to produce whatever there is demand for, just as it now does with traditional aircraft. Commercial satellite launches are now routine, and could easily be fully privatized. The X Prize, which SpaceShipOne won, offered incentives for private groups to break out of the Earth’s atmosphere.
But all this private exploration is hobbled by the crucial absence of a system of property rights in space. Imagine the incentive to a profit-minded business if, for instance, it were granted the right to any stellar body it reached and exploited.
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, it will only be by unleashing the creative force of free and rational minds.
The creative minds that allowed SpaceShipOne to soar to triumph have made the first private steps toward the stars. Before them are enormous technical difficulties, the solution of which will require even more heroic determination than that which tamed the seas and the continents. To solve them, America must unleash its best minds, as only the free market can do.