Save Space Travel:

by Don Lobo Tiggre

One of the most perplexing deviations from principle engaged in by many freedom-lovers is their soft spot for NASA. Even though the U.S. space agency is clearly a government intrusion into what should be a free market endeavor, and a bloated bureaucracy to boot, it is not uncommon to hear liberty-oriented people suggesting that funds be diverted from the military (which is at least a Constitutionally sanctioned activity) to NASA, or from the National Helium Reserve (which everyone agrees has not been very useful since the army stopped using blimps) to NASA.

I myself have even been guilty of having a soft spot for NASA, thinking it should be the last federal agency to go on the block—though I’ve always maintained that any monies liberated from the Feds should be returned to the taxpayers, not redirected to pet projects. Now I have a different view: The sooner we can Proxmire (kill) NASA, the better for space exploration.

And I say that as a great enthusiast of space exploration. I’d dump this mudball in a heartbeat if there were anyone delivering payloads to orbit for as little as $1,000 a ton. Maybe two heartbeats if it were in the $5,000 to $10,000 range. Nobody wants to see space exploration advance more than I do. And that’s why I want to see NASA die. The notion that NASA is in any way helping advance the cause of space travel is simply foolish—a flat out contradiction of everything we know to be true about methods, motives, and results of state-run enterprises.

The Sheep Principle

Remember wise the words of the former Cabinet Minister from New Zealand Morris McTigue:

"Subsidies keep farmers poor."

He was referring to the fact that while New Zealand was subsidizing the sheep industry, the farmers focused their efforts on producing that which was rewarded by the subsidy. The subsidies and other generous social services were bankrupting the country and the farmers were still having trouble surviving. When the subsidies were cut, the farmers went out and did market research and changed their product line to go for the top of the market and ended up making more money than they did under the subsidies. The moral of the story is that if you want a business to thrive, you’ve got to get the state the hell out of the way.

And NASA is an agency of the state; it’s got to be gotten the hell out of the way. Think about it. The purpose and incentives of the agency have always been aligned with PR, not real space exploration. The manned missions to the moon were a colossal waste of resources that could have been put into something practical, like making satellite communications a reality decades earlier than they were. But that wasn’t the idea; the Apollo project’s only purpose was to show those pesky Russians who was boss. An unfortunate, and perhaps not entirely coincidental side benefit was that it gave Americans an unhealthy and unjustified faith in the state. "Uncle Sam put a man on the moon, so he can win this War on Poverty!"

Apollo Pork

For statists, the Apollo project was an unqualified success, one of the best boondoggles they ever came up with. For freedom-lovers and space enthusiasts, it was a step in the wrong direction, a precedent so hideously expensive that it put the enterprise into that category of pork that only bloated welfare/warfare states could afford.

Similarly, the space shuttle has never come even close to living up to its promise of making it inexpensive to deliver cargo to orbit. All it has done has been to divert attention and resources from the many more economic and practical designs that abound, if anyone were to look for them. But why bother, NASA’s "space bus" is making regular trips, so everyone will be able to hitch a ride soon, right?

Don’t hold your breath.

The international space station debacle puts the whole issue to rest, if there are any remaining doubts in any reasonable minds. What could possibly make it clearer than NASA’s insistence on partnership with agencies that can’t deliver (the Russians) that their priority is not space exploration, but political leverage. It’s PR, all the way. Besides, NASA, in keeping with other government agencies not subject to market discipline, isn’t likely to deliver as promised on the space station, even if gets all the money it’s asking for. According to a recent report by the General Accounting Office, NASA cost estimates for the space station do "not include all funding requirements related to space station operations." Or, in simpler terms: they either don’t know what they’re doing or else they are fudging the numbers.

So now NASA is looking at budget cuts, and many space enthusiasts, libertarians among them, are crying foul: "A 10 percent NASA Budget Cut voted on Monday would cancel many space missions. Don't like that? Then take the time TODAY to call your representative and senator(s)."

Budget cuts? I say: the more the better. Cut the budget entirely. Get the state out of space. Let’s let the entrepreneurs get there first and then open it to all of us. I’d trust McDonald’s and Coca-Cola to set up a safe space restaurant (their liability lawyers would make sure of that) far more than I’d ever trust NASA to do so. Does no one remember when Richard Feynman asked the Challenger disaster commission how the O-ring material would respond to cold. The bureaucrats all stared blankly and said it would have to be studied, so Feynman stuck some O-ring material into a glass of ice-water right there on the table and showed them that it lost its ability to spring back into shape when cold. Why on earth would anyone want to trust NASA with anything important?

But private industry doesn’t believe in space development, some protest—what if they won’t foot the bill?

Well, if this were so, the first response should be: "Then by what moral authority do you claim the right to force anyone to fund projects they don’t believe in?"

The second response is that it’s just not so. NASA, faced with the hard reality of budget cuts and a congress with more vacuum where their heats should be than there is out in space, has started looking seriously for commercial partners, and is finding them. A number of companies have already signed on, for example, to support the international space boondoggle—er, station, excuse me.


But better yet, whether because of recent noises encouraging businesses or because of NASA’s glacial pace of project development, the U.S. space agency is starting to get competition, and not just from other government agencies. Consider the following news announced August 13, 1999, by a company called SpaceDev:

SpaceDev will offer commercial missions to the Moon and Mars at prices significantly below current government costs. "We are now offering to deliver small payloads on Mars-entry trajectories for a fixed price of about $24 million," SpaceDev chairman and CEO Jim Benson said Friday at the annual conference of the Mars Society. "The estimated NASA procurement cost for a similar mission is thought to be significantly higher than the SpaceDev fixed price, perhaps twice as much." The company will start offering the commercial Mars mission starting with the 2003 launch opportunity. The $24 million would cover total mission costs to deliver one to three spacecraft into the Martian atmosphere, except for the payload itself. Similarly, Benson said the company would offer lunar orbiter missions commercially for $20 million. These spacecraft could carry up to four payloads, ranging from scientific experiments to Web servers. The payloads could be fixed to the spacecraft or ejected from it.

You get the idea. Imagine how many more companies would get into the business, and how many more companies would give those entrepreneurs business, if there weren’t a prevailing notion afloat in the U.S. that only NASA can do space missions.

If you’d like a graphic illustration of just how badly NASA is retarding space development, read Victor Koman’s masterful novel, Kings of the High Frontier. The story may be fiction, but all the historical material on NASA is factual, and the designs for launch vehicles are viable too.

Meanwhile, compare space development to another high tech field, say computer technology, and ask yourself which is progressing faster. Couldn’t it be that a bureaucracy might not be the best vehicle for space and freedom enthusiasts to hang their hopes and dreams upon?

from The Laissez Faire City Times, Vol 3, No 36, September 13, 1999

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