TCS Daily


Lost in Space

By Radley Balko - March 5, 2002 12:00 AM

America's federally run space program faces a funding crunch. According to Space.com, NASA has run $5 billion over budget in attempting to complete its portion of the International Space Station. The agency has also been forced to cut back on space shuttle missions or, at the request of the Bush administration, privatize the shuttle program altogether. Here's hoping the Bushies stick to their guns, and NASA is forced to allow free markets to carve niches from space.

A little over twenty years ago, Carl Sagan's Cosmos hit the shelves, and reexamining it helps provide a nice backdrop to NASA's current crisis. The book is a sprawling, bewildering examination of the past, present and future of human discovery. It's also a tour of the solar system, the galaxy, the universe, the cosmos, and, oh yeah, of time itself.

Sagan's politics were a hair to the right of Angela Davis -- and so he'd probably cringe at the thought -- but his analysis of the history of human technology in Cosmos makes a compelling case for NASA's eradication, and for a space program driven entirely by private enterprise.

In Cosmos, Sagan rightly points to human societies that welcomed new and potentially uncomfortable ideas, shunned mysticism, and ventured seaward as the antecedents to modern space exploration.

From ancient times he cites the Ionians -- whose geographical placement exposed them to vastly different ideas from neighboring civilizations -- as the prototype of a society conducive to the advancement of human thought. The Ionian region produced most of ancient civilization's great thinkers, including Democritus, Aristotle and Plato, to name three.

Sagan also cites the seventeenth century Dutch, and the Chinese Sung dynasty, as other civilizations worthy of our praise and admiration.

What Sagan fails to mention, at least explicitly, is that in addition to his favored criteria of open exchange of ideas and an aversion to religious oppression, all of these societies also embraced trade, and were comparatively friendly to free markets.

Last July, Stephen Davies of Manchester University gave a lecture in San Diego entitled "History of Liberty, History of Power." In it, Professor Davies looked at the strong correlation between free societies and their scientific and cultural achievement.

Davies explained how China's Sung dynasty, spanning the tenth to thirteenth centuries, embraced free thought and open trade by banning censorship, encouraging movement and commerce, minting billions of coins, and even establishing banking and insurance systems. More pertinent to the point, the Sung built grand, expansive ships for exploration and trade - ships on a size and scale never seen before.

Seventeenth century Holland too was a remarkably free society for its day. Holland became a destination for intellectuals and artists from all over Europe looking to escape the wave of censorship and church-led oppression sweeping the continent. The Dutch East Indies Company - which was more privately than publicly funded - sent ships on exploratory missions all over the globe, and came back with, as Sagan writes "the zest for discovery of new lands, new plants and animals, new people, (and) the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake."

Which brings me back to NASA.

Since its inception, NASA has held a heavy regulatory lid over space entrepreneurship. Yes, NASA thrilled us with such breakthroughs as a moonwalk and a Mars rover, but the agency's first inclination has long been to protect its turf - and in the process smother any new, private markets emerging with respect to space.

Last spring for example, billionaire Dennis Tito offered to pay $20 million to visit the space station MIR. NASA balked, deeming him a "mere tourist" who oughtn't benefit from taxpayer-supported research. After several other attempts, all rebuffed by NASA, Tito finally turned to Energia, a largely private Russian company, which gladly obliged his extra-planetary ambitions, and sent him to the International Space Station.

Think about that for a moment. An American "consumer" was forced to take his business to a private Russian company, because an American "state-run agency" wouldn't accommodate him. How times have changed.

Ed Hudgins, formerly of the Cato Institute, testified before Congress last June on the issue of space and private enterprise. Hudgins pointed out that about a million people took flights in airplanes in the 40 years after the Wright brothers first put humanity airborne. But so far, 40 years after the first cosmonaut left the earth's atmosphere, fewer than 500 people have traveled to space.

It isn't as if the desire isn't there.

According to a report by the Space Transportation Association and NASA itself, more than half the American public would travel to space, technology and cost permitting. And there are dozens of entrepreneurs eagerly awaiting the opportunity to merge space and private enterprise. And recently space hero Buzz Aldrin announced plans for a floating hotel that would shuttle between the earth and moon.

In his testimony, Hudgins pointed to several other private companies willing and anxious to squeeze profit from space, including such projects as space "cruises," exploration of alternative energy sources, and less expensive, out-and-back thrill trips to the tip of the atmosphere.

The Space Transportation Association estimates that a "ticket" to space could cost as little as $10,000 in the decades to come - a cost reasonable enough to bring in a half-million "tourists."

Americans fail to see the consumer potential for space because space has for too long been under NASA's jurisdiction - tucked far away from any commercial endeavors.

And lest we forget, NASA is a federal agency, subject to the same bureaucratic waste, turf protection, and inefficiency that plagues other government agencies.

It isn't religious zealotry or mysticism or an aversion to learning that's holding back our society's potential for discovery, it's overgrown bureaucracy.

Yes, NASA took us to the moon. But the "moon race" was spurred in part by Cold War competition from the Soviets. There's also no evidence to suggest that private firms couldn't have gotten us there sooner. Now that the Cold War is over, NASA has little competitive incentive for innovation.

Faced with competing budget priorities - a war on terrorism and an economic recession, to name two - it could be a long while before NASA finds the public funding (or interest) it thinks it needs to accomplish its missions.

But that's no reason to hold back our pursuit of knowledge and discovery.

Better to free up space to the profiteers and businessmen than to wait for rejuvenated public interest, or for another president who might will us to our generation's moon mission. Americans will regain interest in space when enterprising capitalists find ways to bring space to Americans.

But for that to happen, NASA needs to evolve radically -- or simply step aside.
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