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Privatize the space program

By Robert Garmong
web posted March 17, 2003

When asked how they would "heal" after the loss of space shuttle Columbia, NASA's engineers responded as one: NASA heals by solving yesterday's problems and launching the next mission. So, indeed, does the American nation. Thus, before the grief had fully faded into memory, we began asking ourselves what had gone wrong, and how to solve it.

Many solutions have been proposed, from the incremental (such as safety upgrades and improved inspections) to the radical (such as a new breed of space vehicles powered by plasma engines). But the most radical change, the one that would improve space exploration most dramatically, has been ignored: privatizing the space program.

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.

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.

A members of the space shuttle Columbia reconstruction project team look over debris from space shuttle Columbia as it is arranged on a grid at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida on March 12
A members of the space shuttle Columbia reconstruction project team look over debris from space shuttle Columbia as it is arranged on a grid at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida on March 12

Now comes evidence 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. 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.

Nor would it be difficult to spur the private exploration of space. After government involvement in space exploration is phased out, the free market will work to produce whatever there is demand for, just as it now does with traditional aircraft, both military and civilian. In addition, Congress should develop a system of property rights to any stellar body reached and exploited by an American company. This would provide economic incentive for the sorts of extremely ambitious projects NASA would not dare to propose to its Congressional purse-holders.

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?

Robert Garmong is a writer for the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, CA. The Institute promotes Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.

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