TCS Daily

America Needs Competition To Advance In Space

By James Pinkerton - March 26, 2001 12:00 AM

It's unfortunate that the Iranians were unable to buy the Mir space station from the Russians and keep it in orbit. What? Iran, the country that held Americans hostage for 444 days? The country that still labels the United States as "the Great Satan"? Yup, that Iran.

To be sure, no American should be eager to see a rogue nation -- potentially a nuclear-armed rogue nation -- flying overhead. But at the same time, every American, indeed every human, has an ultimate interest in a robust space program that offers homo sapiens the possibility of off-world travel -- for fun, for profit, for survival.

And as history proves, the key to a vibrant spacefaring culture is competition. For three decades, space travel has been essentially a NASA monopoly, and the result has been textbook: high costs and constricted supply. Indeed, the U.S. agency seems determined to do everything possible to choke off private travel into space. Given that the private U.S. economy totals some $8 trillion a year, one might think that NASA, with an annual budget of $14 billion, would be eager to tap into all that private-sector cash, but monopolies play by their own rules.

Indeed, not only has NASA dismissed private-sector efforts to infiltrate its domain, it has done everything possible to block other countries bureaucracies from acting entrepreneurially. In its post-Soviet desperation, the Russian Space Agency has sought out new sources of revenue -- even from Western capitalists. But NASA, which wants the Russians to focus exclusively on its latest globalist-collectivist undertaking, the International Space Station (ISS), has threatened financial sanctions on the Russians if they start behaving like capitalists.

And so the U.S. space agency was delighted when Mark Burnett, the producer of the reality TV show Survivor," failed in his effort to create Destination Mir, in which contestants would have vied for the chance to go into orbit. And NASA was even happier when Dennis Tito, the California millionaire, was unable to buy his way onto the Mir. The Russians, meanwhile, continuously incentivized by Tito's money, now want to send the American aboard the ISS as part of their national crew, but NASA is fighting that as well.

Free marketeers know the value of competition between private actors; they also increasingly see the value of competition between the private and public sectors. As an example of the latter, home, the school-choice movement has greatly improved the nation's public schools; the most calcified bureaucracies get nimbler when confronted by competition from charter schools, not to mention voucherized private schools.

But what's perhaps less appreciated among libertarians is the tonic effect of competition between public sectors. Nations compete, too. And that would have been the upside of an Iranian purchase of Mir; Agence France Presse reported last Monday that President Mohammad Khatami had offered to buy the space station during a recent visit to Moscow, but the offer came too late to save the orbiter from meeting its fiery fate on Friday. If there were an ayatollah in space, there would be more Americans in space, too.

Consider: in 1957, the Soviet Union put Sputnik in space, and the United States scrambled to compete. Just a dozen years later, NASA put Apollo 11 on the moon. Yet because the Soviets had given up the race by 1969, the manned space program was doomed at its moment of greatest triumph. Put simply, since the United States had no one to compete with, it no longer wanted to compete.

The result has been three decades of stagnation. Having gotten to the moon in a frenzy of nationalistic fervor, NASA tried to preserve its momentum by becoming part of internationalism. The Apollo-Soyuz orbital linkup of 1975, for example, was an expression of U.S.-Soviet detente; it had nothing to do with America's space purpose or patriotic pride. Not surprisingly, the U.S. public yawned, nor was the rest of the world inspired.

To be sure, the private sector has expanded into space; the planetary satellite business is a $100 billion-a-year industry. But the idea of actually putting people into space for fun or profit has been all but forgotten. As noted, NASA has hardly been welcoming to private-sector rivals, but the Fortune 500 could, if it wanted to, peel back NASA's stranglehold. Evidently, the economics of human space exploration are just too daunting.

Indeed, over the last few decades, the popular imagination has gone from outward to inward, from outer space to cyberspace. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, unless it's to humanity's ultimate benefit to travel to other places in the solar system and beyond. If so, then at best, we are simply delaying our rendezvous with destiny. At worst, we are sitting here, like sitting ducks, hoping that the Big One -- defined as a weapon of mass destruction, perhaps, or an asteroid, or maybe some runaway doomsday device out of Bill Joy's Wired-magazine imagination -- doesn't strike anytime soon.

What will change the current climate of space-ennui? Some hoped that the two asteroid-strike movies of 1998, Armageddon and Deep Impact, would get people thinking about a space defense at least. And to be sure, the Bush administration is moving toward a limited missile defense. But the larger idea of actually going back into space in a big way -- to the moon, to Mars, and beyond -- still lies fallow.

So what should a spacenik do? History suggests that the only thing that will change the current apathy toward space is the same thing that changed the last period of apathy: a rival space-power.

Europeans and Japanese have flown aboard the space shuttle; such missions, obviously, have no effect on NASA's monopoly. Meanwhile, the Chinese have talked about putting their own man in space in 2001; such a mission would indeed have a stimulative effect on America's ego and therefore, quite possibly, on America's space agenda. But the competition, of course, could be private, as well; Bill Gates or Richard Branson could conceivably find the resources to go into space for themselves. Or failing that, they might at least overcome NASA's dog-in-the-manger-ish attitude toward new space players. And some hardcore libertarian might be plotting a mission to the moon, if for no other reason than to declare it an independent tax haven.

In other words, any sort of competitive pressure -- even from the Iranians -- would be a spur to American ingenuity, public or private. If Americans go first, great. But if non-Americans go first, that would be great, too. History shows that if Americans get into a contest, they are likely to prevail. But the logic of human destiny suggests that when peoples of any nation compete, evolution itself moves upward.

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