Mark Whittington notes:
First, I don’t think you can say that the US space program was “socialistic” in 1961-71, because it’s purpose was not economic, but rather oriented toward national security/prestige. The moment the nation decided to run a national space line-an economic function which would have been best run by the private sector-then the space program became socialistic.
Well, sort of. But remember that NASA was more than just Apollo, and in its formation, it absorbed the old National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), which did have an economic function (one that it performed quite well). It provided basic technologies to the aviation industry that resulted in many of the advances from the thirties through the fifties. Once that happened, NASA’s technology development served mainly NASA’s needs, rather than industry’s, and that happened in the sixties.
But the point remains that once we established this government agency to do “space,” it became the be-all and end-all of space in many people’s minds, and all of the government “commercialization” efforts that have occurred as a result have been funneled through NASA. We certainly don’t have anything resembling the traditional American free-enterprise model when it comes to human space flight. At least until recently, with things like the X-Prize and XCOR.
Also, while creating a “frontier” in which everyone can participate is a good goal, I don’t see any action items that a NASA could do to implement that goal. What do you propose? Technology development? Core markets? Something else?
What he said. Technology development (that has broad application–not commercial prototypes masquerading as X vehicles, as X-33 and X-34 were) would be nice, but not sufficient.
Core markets are essential. The launch cost problem is fundamentally a market problem, in that there is insufficient market to provide the economies of scale necessary to reduce launch costs. If instead of spending billions per year to send a couple dozen people into space, the government took that same several billion and issued RFQs and POs for tens of thousands of people to go into space (at a much lower cost per person), and sold whatever they didn’t need on the open market, this would spur an entirely new industry dedicated to low-cost access. It would be a subsidization similar to the airmail subsidy that got the airline industry going in the thirties. I’m not necessarily proposing that, but it would be the quickest way to achieve my proposed goal.
Also recall that I didn’t necessarily propose that NASA do anything. I proposed a thorough overhaul of federal space policy to meet my goals. One possible outcome of that is a total disappearance of NASA in its current form. As I said, until we decide what we are trying to accomplish in space, there’s no point in figuring out what NASA should do, since NASA (at least the forty-four-year-old NASA to which we’ve grown accustomed) may turn out to be irrelevant.
My biggest concern about O’Keefe will be that, in the absence of some policy direction beyond “fix space station,” his concern will be not to do the right thing, but to “do the thing right.”
Reader “Paul” comments:
I disagree that we need to define a goal; implicit in “define a goal” is the assumption that someone, somewhere, is smart enough, and has enough data to accurately pick a goal. And the assumption that one exists.
Picking goals doesn’t require being “smart.” Since they are subjective, it just requires reaching a political consensus, after a rational national debate (something that hasn’t occurred with regard to space in four decades). Choosing goals doesn’t require data, and goals exist as soon as we decide they do–they aren’t floating around somewhere in the aether waiting to be discovered.
It’s achieving goals that requires being smart, and this is what the competitive market generally does much better than governments, particularly for goals that are individual.
As I said in the post, if we don’t have a goal, there’s no point in having a program, since there’s no way to determine whether or not it’s being successful. Maybe your goal is to not have a government space program at all. I don’t necessarily disagree with that, but it’s orthogonal to my point, which is that we have no national goals at all for the money that we spend on federal space activities (at least none directly related to doing interesting things in space).
The funding decisions are made almost totally on the basis of jobs in various congressional districts, foreign aid to Russia, and “international cooperation,” all of which can be achieved without launching a single scrap of hardware into orbit, as we saw for fifteen years on the space station program.
One of the best aspects of privitization is that each organization involved can have its own vision, and the market will weed out the bad ideas.
I think that you’re confusing privatization with “free market.” Privatization simply means taking an existing government function and transferring it to a private entity. The only market for the service, at least initially, is the government. The situation remains a monopsony (the demand-equivalent of a monopoly–a single large customer in the market). It’s primarily a means of saving taxpayer money, but if done cleverly can eventually be leveraged into an more useful commercial venture.