Freeing Up Space


Joining Tim Cavanaugh in arguing for more privatization of the space program is NASA's former manager for Mars Exploration, Donna Shirley.

"[T]he thing that's continually overlooked is the possible contribution of the private sector," she said Monday.

"I personally think that it is time to really start incentivizing private enterprise to fill in gaps in space transportation that is currently just a monopoly of a few big companies."

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  1. Richard,
    Why won’t companies with quarterly financials on their mind be just as concerned with safety and utility? Perhaps I’m not as convinced about NASA’s dedication to safety as I used to be, but it’s at least an open question as to whether the private sector could do better. Aligning share-holder interests would be damn easy – if a rocket crashes, they’re out tons of money and can’t trot out old astronauts to help beg Congress for cash.
    As for utility, that’s the private sector’s strongest argument. Say what you will about getting school kids interested in space (maybe that has some positive externalities that we can’t measure yet), but there’s no good scientific reason to take spiders and ants into space, especially when you have PhDs looking after them. The private sector may have a different notion of utility (more space tourism, fewer high school bug experiments), but it’s well-nigh impossible to say that private companies care LESS about the utility of their investments than NASA.

  2. Right on, Grant!

    Marc and Richard:

    The problem is, NASA is already a system largely run by large contractors–most of its nominal “employees” actually represent aerospace firms. The space-industrial complex, like the military-industrial complex, is state capitalism to the core. It’s a privately owned planned economy with its profits and sales guaranteed by the state. Pretty much the whole high-tech and manufacturing R&D sector has been militarized, with the leading new technologies developed with state money and the patents given away free to state capitalist firms.

    And that’s probably also what Bush’s hydrogen power and AIDS initiatives are about, BTW.

  3. I suppose that Mr. Bennett has never heard of jet airliners, TWA, or United Airlines either.

    Yes, there have been airline accidents, but the relative occurance compared to space flight is several orders of magnitude smaller.

  4. I don’t mean to drag this off topic, but fuel cell technology (Hydrogen power for people afraid of the word “fuel”.) really isn’t being pushed very hard by the government. American automakers are just scrambling to keep up with their Japanese counterparts. Fuel cells have some advantages over internal combustion apart from their “green” appeal.

    I promise to post again soon and get the topic back on target.

  5. Jarrod:

    I’ve got no strong feelings, one way or the other, on fuel cells. But the government will sure be pushing that R&D money hard! If U.S. auto companies want to “scramble to compete” with the Japanese, they should do it with their own money–not gummint subsidies to research and investment.

    The smarter people in the auto and fossil fuel economy know that fossil fuels are on the way out, in the long run. And they want to keep institutional control of whatever replaces them. The way to do that is by controlling the lion’s share of R&D in the replacement technologies, and by controlling the patents. With the state’s help, they are busily doing both.

  6. In Response to Madog’s post:

    A Few Commercial Applications for Space
    (In order of most likely realization.)

    Fabrication of electronics in microgravity. Computers get even smaller and faster. We already know this idea sells.

    Beamed power. Solar cells in orbit beam power down to earth via microwave. Potentially competitive with earth based power generation.

    New manufacturing techniques. Something like microgravity vapor deposition could conceivably improve our current structures and begin another materials revolution.

    Recreation. Give your heart a rest in orbit and add 20 years to your life.

    Fabrication of precision crystals. Photons are even smaller than electrons. Computing power takes another quantum leap forward.

    Asteriod mining. There are more useful minerals in space near the Earth than there are on or near the surface. More supply means lower prices.

    Heavy hydrogen and other useful goodies not available on Earth are out there as well. By the time we get out that far there should be enough demand in space that we will be debating on the utility of dragging crap up out of the earth’s gravity instead of building it at a space factory.

    Realizing any of these applications requires basic research (International Space Station) and a way to get up out of the hole (Space Shuttle). Whether they know it or not, the governemnts that support these platforms are the ones working to get over the initial investment hump and put these space-based products on the shelves.

    We appear to finally be reaching the point where a handful of far sighted investors are realizing it is time to take a bite of this emerging field. Once the economic scale begins to tip, there is no stopping it.

  7. Kevin,
    I understand your concerns about NASA’s ‘state capitalism,’ and indeed, I think that’s another reason to privatize the thing. Are you saying that privatizing NASA wouldn’t change anything, as the contractors who make up 95% of the budget/employees would remain? Maybe, but the thing about state capitalism is that it needs a state. The problem is that Congressional funding to NASA distorts the market for space travel/research – remove that and the distortion withers and dies. It’s the fact that price and demand signals get lost and we end up paying those contractors to send John Glenn up again. I’d support basic research grant funding, but I think the NASA model doesn’t work – for the reasons you and others have mentioned. If I misread you, I’m sure you won’t hesitate to correct me.
    There IS a killer app for the privates: space tourism. Look at all the rich folks going up with the Russians. Admittedly, there aren’t many, but it’s common enough that sony put it in a freakin’ commercial and they didn’t have explain the premise. Many say that space tourism would divert resources away from science and research and fritter it away on the fantasies of the idle rich (I can just see the headlines about the problem of the ‘Orbital Divide’ now). Still, the system we’ve got now is trying to convince us that taking ant farms into space with brilliant scientists as keepers constitutes science. Or that John Glenn’s last ride was important because we got to learn how space affects people who are like, old and stuff.
    Ooh, lookey here. Someone a lot more knowledgeable has posted a list of potential killer apps. I’d say that settles the issue.

  8. I saw that conversation on the Newshour, and it’s worth reading the transcript for the way it illustrates various points on the continuum of shuttle thinking. Easterbrook’s demand that we close down the shuttle program strikes me as Chicken Little talk, uncoupled to any principled view on why NASA shouldn’t monopolize the space industry but merely reacting to the current disaster. He also notes that the shuttle has killed more people than any other vehicle, without mentioning that (I’m pretty sure) it has also sent more people into space than any other vehicle. Professor Logsdon represents the current rut of space program thinking; when he’s questioned on the value of manned flight he immediately starts talking about the “intangibles.” ZZZZ! Although it’s easy to be skeptical of Ms. Shirley’s halfway-privatization scheme, but she won me over with her talk of breaking up the monopoly. Still, when she says that we have to continue the space station because it’s “way too big an investment,” I’m reminded of a cartoon on the wall at the Reason office that shows a king addressing his court. King: “All my horses and all my men can’t put Humpty Dumpty together again, which proves that I need more horses and more men!”

    Please note that I have at no time claimed private companies would do a better job with space safety, nor have I made any half-cocked accusations about NASA’s safety procedures. The benefits of a competitive space industry I think are clear enough without making claims about NASA negligence.

  9. I agree that space tourism has the potential be a great windfall for commercial space, especially once a vehicle is designed for that purpose. But between that and mining the asteriods and other advanced space industies it seems like there’s a big gap.

    Power satellites could fill that gap, but I think the political rather than technical or financial obsticles will be too great. After all, beams of microwave energy can quickly become “radiation beaming on our towns and cities” and who would support that. Enviromentalists would be against it just as much as they are against nuclear.

    The problem with manufacturing is that you have to find a way to make it as cheap as products made on earth. Your chip might be three times as fast, but if it costs twenty times more to make, then it’s going to have a hard time competeing.

  10. First Power Satellites:
    If your not excited about getting your town microwaved by a power satellite, there’s always lasers (My god, think of the pigeons!) or a few miles of wire hanging down from orbit. Besides, if environmentalists are aginst power satellites, isn’t that a sure sign they must be a good idea?

    Second Space Industry:
    In the final analysis, gravity is not value added. We spend untold amounts of money and energy overcoming m*g*h all of the time and apart from holding the air down, it doesn’t help much. Once established, space based industry has enormous potential to outperform planetary industry.

  11. I’m sure private companies would be even more concerned about saftey then NASA… unless they figure they could get government bailouts if disaster strikes. But when does that sort of thing ever happen???

  12. “I personally think that it is time to really start incentivizing private enterprise to fill in gaps in space transportation that is currently just a monopoly of a few big companies.”

    Oh, I see, have the government give the private industry tax breaks, funding etc, to make a profit.

  13. “The shuttle has killed more people than any other vehicle?” Really? More than the ocean liner or hydrogen airship?

    I wonder if the private sector would be driving a 1981 U.S. made vehicle into space in 2003. Think Chevy Citation. Or an 8086 computer running Lotus 1-2-3?

    One argument for private sector over government program: if it can’t succeed, then at least it can fail.

  14. Free space!

  15. “Incentivizing.”

    Well that just fills me with joy.

    Instead of “no longer actively trying to sabotage private endeavours” we get “incentivizing,” presumably meaning continuing to exclude non-favored companies while rewarding a few large, financially shaky companies (*cough*Boeing*cough*) to do unimaginative and probably useless work.

    Letting the private sector operate on its own terms would be too sensible; better to “incentivize.” Betcha NASA’s old procurement regs stay in place for non-incentivized companies.

  16. The problem is there’s no “killer app” for space industry that makes it hugely attractive to investors. Satellites are the only reliable way to make money right now, and no one knows what the next big thing will be. Until some new way of making lots of money becomes apparent, space will be limited to the government – who can spend other people’s money without worrying, and space enthusiasts who if they had money would love spending it on anything space related.

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