Science

Time to Privatize Space?

The merits of keeping the space station operational are widely accepted, but there's a hefty $100 billion price tag.

Brian Mark Weber · Feb. 16, 2018

In January, NASA and the White House announced a plan to keep funding the International Space Station until 2024. The merits of keeping the space station operational are widely accepted, but there’s a hefty $100 billion price tag that comes along with all of that science. There’s little doubt that sidelining the project would be a mistake, but might there be a better way to fund it?

One solution being tossed around is the privatization of space.

The Resurgent’s Marc Giller writes that after the “wildly successful launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, it’s also not surprising that the administration would be anxious to promote more partnerships between the taxpayers and private industry and get American exploration of space on the fast track.”

Letting go of our government-funded space program is, however, easier said than done. After all, we have an emotional attachment to NASA. Americans were glued to their television sets during the moon landings, counted down the final seconds before space shuttle launches, and we continue to be amazed at the idea that humans are living in a space station orbiting the Earth. We’ve been with NASA through incredible triumphs and painful tragedies, and we take great pride and inspiration in our country’s ability to go where no man has gone before.

But those days are largely in the past.

Can we reach for the stars in ways other than through a government bureaucracy? Can the private sector, or at least a public-private partnership, take us to new worlds more efficiently? President Donald Trump’s proposal to fund NASA through at least 2024 might allow us to reap the benefits of such collaboration.

Tariq Malik writes at Space.com, “The decision may also impact the development of private manned spacecraft by U.S. companies vying for NASA contracts to ferry American astronauts to and from the space station. Currently, NASA buys seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to fly Americans in space, but the agency hopes to begin purchasing flights from U.S. spaceflight companies by 2017. Several companies, such as SpaceX, Boeing, Sierra Nevada and Blue Origin, are developing vehicles to vie for NASA space-taxi contracts.”

Now, plenty of people get really nervous when the term privatization is thrown around. Sadly, we’ve grown so accustomed to trusting government that we fear putting bold ideas in the hands of the people. And then there’s the cronyism angle of Big Government getting in bed with Big Business.

To the latter point, companies like Boeing already operate the space station for NASA at $3 to $4 billion per year, so we’re not entering uncharted territory. Furthermore, NASA plans to study business proposals from various companies before making long-term commitments.

For those worried about handing over the future of space exploration to a private company, the reality is that we might lose these ventures altogether if we don’t look for real solutions.

Reason’s Katherine Mangu-Ward reminds us, “When the Russians were looking to shed some space costs in the late 1990s, they leased the Mir space station to an American outfit with plans to use it as a hub for space tourism. The lease was modeled after a terrestrial real estate lease. In the end, that experiment was not a success, but given that the alternative really was to let the thing burn up in the atmosphere — to actually be deorbited — it was a reasonable gamble.”

If the Russians can inject capitalism into their space program, why can’t we? The good people at NASA have done great things over the decades, but there have also been bureaucratic boondoggles. (Who can forget the $349 million laboratory tower that was constructed in 2014 — despite the rocket for the tower having been discontinued in 2010?)

NASA is still doing good work, however, such as the upcoming launch of the world’s most powerful Deep Space Atomic Clock, whose deployment will help maintain and improve the accuracy of GPS systems.

But while the most innovative scientists at NASA are often burdened by the pressures and influences of politicians, there are still some legitimate issues with privatization. As Jazz Shaw writes at Hot Air, “Speaking purely in general terms of conservative government theory, we should probably applaud the idea. … But applying that concept to the ongoing operation of the [International Space Station] is problematic from a number of angles.”

How so? For starters, a private space enterprise isn’t likely to produce a profit. We’re light years away from making money off of space tourism, and the only way a company might continually fund a project is by tapping into government funding. This is certainly a good point, but perhaps a private company could simply spend our tax dollars more efficiently through a partnership with NASA.

In any case, it’s time to find a better way. And a public-private partnership might be the most viable step. By combining what NASA does best with the energy, creativity and efficiency of the private sector, we may well be able to energize a space program that’s slated to be mothballed in six years — and reassert our nation’s leadership in outer space.

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