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With Friends Like This...

...private spaceflight doesn't need any enemies. Here's a proposal from the Prometheus Institute, a libertarian think tank in California. It's got a lot of problems.

China, already having put a human into space, further demonstrated its celestial capabilities by recently shooting down an orbiting satellite. To Washington's Sinophobic lobby already hopped-up about inflated currency and devious trade practices, the Chinaman's aerospace belligerence seemed to be cause for grave apprehension.

But America should not be afraid - far from it. Instead, we should be celebrating the advancement. Just like air travel in its infancy, space travel is a technology now finding its way from rich world governments and militaries to civilians around the world. And just like air travel, market competition should lead the progress.

Yes, let us celebrate the ability of the Chinese to obliterate our satellites. And maybe I missed all the "civilians" in China who are not traveling into space.

NASA, America's space program, currently enjoys a government-created-and-backed monopoly privilege and is, along with our military, the only American entity that legally ventures into space.

For all his appreciation of private enterprise, you'd think that this guy would know that all launches other than the Shuttle are private launches. And they're all performed legally, as licensed by the FAA.

The first space-tourist, American millionaire Dennis Tito, doled out $20 million from his own coffers to the Russian authorities for the ability to go to space with their Cosmonauts. Tito chose Russia only because NASA first rejected his proposal to fly with them on the grounds that he was not a trained astronaut. Thus, in an embarrassing bit of irony, America's refusal to fly Capitalism's Neil Armstrong means that the only "commercial" space carrier currently available in the world is in the former Soviet Union. (And as is true of all government-sanctioned monopolies, especially Russian ones, they charge a hefty price.) But the tide of private competition is finally turning.

None other than Virgin's Sir Richard Branson wants to be the first to offer sub-orbital flights to the general public. Currently, his White Knight Two and the Space Ship Two spacecrafts are scheduled to undergo a test flight program later this year and then finally launch commercial operations approximately a year later. Tickets start at $200,000, or 1% of the going Russian price. Now, if one competitor can reduce the cost of space travel this drastically, imagine the result when America's entrepreneurial craft is truly unleashed.

He's comparing apples to omelettes. Virgin is not going to reduce the cost of going to orbit by two orders of magnitude, as is implied here. The twenty million is for a trip to an orbital space station of several days. The two hundred kilobucks is for a few minutes in suborbit. So the fare is a lot less, yes, but so is the service. He even says himself that it is "sub-orbital." I don't know whether he's being clueless, or deliberately misleading here, but either way, it severely undermines his thesis in a way that will be sure to be justifiably attacked by the NASA fanboyz.

But wait! It gets better! Or worse, depending on your point of view:

America should facilitate the progress toward private space travel. First, Congress should dissolve America's space monopoly by transferring NASA from government to private ownership.

Sure. Just hand it over to private ownership. Why didn't we think of that?

I wonder who he thinks would take it over? Does he have any idea how much you'd have to pay anyone sane to take NASA off the government's hands? It not only has no market value--it has negative market value. The auction would be based on whoever was willing to take the least amount of ongoing taxpayer subsidy to keep the mess going.

Second, Congress should ensure efficient entry into the space travel market, levelling the competitive field for any investor or entrepreneur, thus ensuring that no one is granted privileges or exemptions that favor one over the other.

Here is the kind of simplistic proposal that was made for the phrase, "the devil's in the details."

He goes on:

The government should gradually auction off each project, to ensure an orderly transition to private control, and to also make sure they do not land into the hands of a few oligarchs at Abramovich, Khodorkovsky & Co. From the outset, this policy would provide for competition and a certain degree of specialization. Those NASA projects that truly fall under the umbrella of national security should be allocated to a branch of the U.S. military, which is where they originally belonged anyway.

As is the reality in every other industry, we should let the scientists, pioneers and entrepreneurs compete in the marketplace, instead of in the halls of Congress, and let the consumer decide to whom the share of the pie shall go. As recent experience has shown, competition in the marketplace lowers prices and increases consumer choice, and will continue to do so over time.

Where to start?

Most of the projects that are described here simply will not happen if the government doesn't fund them. The market is either non-existent, or too diffuse, for them to get private funding, given their cost. If one wants to argue that they're a poor use of federal dollars, that's an interesting discussion, but to assume that they'll simply go out and get funded in the private marketplace displays a naivety that could only be found in a libertarian "think" tank.

If this is the quality of "thinking" that goes on at Prometheus, if I were a donor, I'd demand my money back.


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Mac wrote:

If this is the quality of "thinking" that goes on at Prometheus, if I were a donor, I'd demand my money back.

That's why they publish op-ed pieces and not company directives.

Mac wrote:

To add on, I'm a writer and will always remember the phrase my favorite teacher always said about writing. "Its now what you don't know that hurts your writing. Its what you THINK you know." Congratulations to the guy who wrote the article for so aptly displaying the meaning of my teacher's phrase.

Jeff Medcalf wrote:

One of the reasons that I left the Libertarians behind was this kind of blinkered and unrealistic view of everything. Once you've decided that you have the One Truth, it's easy to get everything wrong and not notice.

Anonymous wrote:

Your writing teacher was Will Rogers?

Mac wrote:

Scary, ain't it?

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This page contains a single entry by Rand Simberg published on March 5, 2008 9:11 AM.

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