NASA, Go Home!


The Space Enterprise, by G. Harry Stine, New York: Ace Books, 1980, 226 pp., $6.95.

Although with the successful Space Shuttle run in April NASA has won the race to launch the first reusable space truck, there are quite a few entrepreneurs still hard at work on competitive private versions of a space truck. Between the West German firm OTRAG and various American individuals such as Robert Truax and Gary Hudson, it doesn't look like NASA will have the earth-to-space route monopoly for long. And G. Harry Stine's latest book fits right in with these developments. Stine suggests, not a government-run program with predominantly political goals, but one that is privately financed and managed—and operating in the black.

Stine, an engineer, devotes much of the book to a discussion of the technological aspects of space industrialization. In layman's terms, he explains the industrial processes that can be used only in space or, at least, most efficiently in space. He also sketches a 30-year scenario for the development of these opportunities and bedazzles the reader with an array of products that we can expect from the space enterprise.

The gravity-free environment will allow the production of alloys and pharmaceuticals that it is virtually impossible to manufacture on earth. Solar power satellites can be built where they will be exposed to nearly constant sunlight. Eventually, the moon and the asteroid belt will be the site of vast mining enterprises. And one of the most desirable side effects of the move into space will be the virtual elimination of pollution problems on earth.

Perhaps the most interesting section of Stine's book is the chapter on financing the space enterprise. Establishing a thriving industrial community in space will require several hundred billion dollars, at least, over the next 30 years. While this may not seem like a great deal of money compared to the annual budget of the federal government, it is certainly more than any single company can afford to commit, especially on an enterprise that is extremely risky and has a long (in excess of 15 to 20 years) payback period.

According to Stine, it is the consensus of many people in business that the space enterprise would be much more attractive if some way could be found to get the government to assume some of the risk or to allow them to spread the risk without running afoul of antitrust regulations. Nonetheless, Stine is hopeful. He points out that there is a long history in this country of cooperation between government and the private sector to meet the unique needs of new enterprises.

Stine's list of examples of cooperation between government and the private sector is none too encouraging, however. Railroads, highways, the Panama Canal, and the postal system are surely not the best models for the space enterprise. There can be no doubt that all these brought enormous benefits, especially at the outset. But in recent years, all have suffered enormous difficulties, directly attributable to government involvement.

The financial obstacles that space development must overcome are not unique; virtually any high-technology enterprise requires a massive capital investment and is extremely risky. The nuclear industry is an excellent example of what happens when we rely on government involvement to overcome these obstacles. Whether one is for nuclear power or against it, one thing is clear: the nuclear industry is a mess.

The government aggressively promoted nuclear energy with promises of financial support and protective legislation. Nuclear energy was pushed onto the market before it was called for and before the utility companies were ready to cope with the problems posed by this new and highly complex technology. When the public complained, the government responded with regulations that did little, if anything, to help overcome these problems.

Much of the public now views nuclear energy as a massive tax rip-off for the benefit of the corporations, besides being unsafe. Government involvement has so distorted the industry's development that we may never have the opportunity to find out whether nuclear energy is commercially viable at a safety level acceptable to the public.

The space enterprise is particularly vulnerable to this kind of problem. Since its inception, the space program has been viewed by many as foolish and wasteful. If the government becomes too heavily involved in the attempt to industrialize space, this opposition is likely to grow. And no doubt the politicians will exploit this opposition just as they have exploited the opposition to nuclear energy. If the space enterprise is commercially viable—and Stine makes a very persuasive case that it is—government involvement is likely to be more of a hindrance than anything else.

Stine does discuss one sort of financial arrangement that does not rely on government involvement. A staging company, International Satellite Systems, Inc. (ISI), established by Christian O. Basler, is a unique form of business organization. ISI began as an investment company whose charter commits it to investing in companies likely to profit from space industrialization. At the same time, all its profits are to be used for contracts with these companies for R&D on various aspects of space industrialization. If the R&D is successful and space industrialization proves to be commercially viable, then ISI will profit at the same time as it finances the space enterprise. Once the space enterprise proves to be commercially viable, ISI will become an operating company engaged in space industrialization.

Stine predicts that ISI will not run afoul of the law, since Basler is an expert in antitrust and SEC regulations. If this proves to be true, and if the space enterprise proves to be commercially viable, we will no doubt see many of these staging companies in the future.

For old space buffs like myself, Stine's book is like a breath of fresh air. If the government allows the Shuttle Program to be taken over by a private company (Boeing wants to do just this), and if it doesn't find a way to hamstring staging companies like ISI, the move into space may yet take place.

John Ahrens is an assistant professor of philosophy at Bowling Green State University.