D. Dowd Muska


Make Space Less Public, More Private

July 31, 2014

The International Space Station is built. The shuttle is retired. NASA, and its advocates, congressional patrons, and contractors, are struggling with a question: Now what?

The nation’s astro-bureaucracy launches science probes and researches aeronautics, but its raison d’être, in the eyes of most, is to put men in space. With no firm destination set, nasty scuffles are being waged between partisans for an asteroid visit, a moon colony, and a landing on Mars.

Roger D. Launius, NASA’s former chief historian and currently an associate director of the National Air and Space Museum, recognizes the need to think a bit bigger. “Historical Analogs for the Stimulation of Space Commerce,” published by NASA’s History Program Office, explores the past in an attempt to find a policy mechanism to abet “private-sector investment in space activities.” It’s a useful, if ultimately disappointing, monograph.

“For human spaceflight to expand into the future,” Launius writes, “there must be a compelling reason to undertake it.” Public support for government missions, he’s discovered, is no foundation. In the 1960s, when asked if NASA should send astronauts to the moon, “in virtually all cases a majority opposed doing so, even during the height of Apollo.” (In 2001, it was revealed that secretly, moonshot hero JFK was “not that interested in space.”) To this day, polls show that “the space program … [ranks] near the top of those activities of the federal government deserving to be cut.”

Since public enthusiasm won’t put Americans in space to stay, Launius suggests another tool. Public-private partnerships are “increasingly used in infrastructure and investment-heavy sectors as a means of leveraging public funding, operational efficiency, and risk.” They’ve been used in the past, too, and the historian examines six case studies “that fostered, through a range of efforts, many different initiatives that contributed to the nation’s economy, culture, and democratic status”: the building of the transcontinental railroad, the commercialization of air transportation, the monopolization of the telephone industry, U.S. exploration of Antarctica, “large public works projects” such as the TVA and rural electrification, and the creation and management of the National Park Service.

Launius glibly endorses the “broad mandate ‘to promote the general welfare’ of the people of the nation” as authorizing Washington to shower the six endeavors with direct investments, tax credits, land grants, favorable regulations, bond backing, loan guarantees, assistance from the military, and government contracts. But leaving the thoroughly legitimate constitutionality question aside, it’s troubling that he devotes so little attention to the waste, fraud, and corruption that often soiled the case studies. (Any chronicle of the nation’s first coast-to-coast railroad that doesn’t mention the Crédit Mobilier scandal verges on historical malpractice.)

Launius’s review concludes that NASA “must undergo significant shifts in programs and practices” -- specifically, the development of “more equal partnerships to accomplish its space exploration mandate.” The feds should no longer own and operate launch systems, but make use of “commercial firms,” leaving the agency’s big brains to “focus on deep space exploration, perhaps eventually visiting Mars.”

It’s a curious recommendation, since that’s what NASA is doing now. ISS cargo is delivered by SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, and competitively bid taxis are expected to begin ferrying astronauts in 2017. As for “deep space exploration,” the Space Launch System, which recently awarded a $2.8 billion contract for two core stages to Boeing, boasts that it will be “the most powerful rocket in history for deep space missions, including to an asteroid and ultimately to Mars.” (A likelier fate for the vehicle is a lengthy period of cost overruns and schedule slips, followed by cancelation.)

Launius is arguing for an enhanced version of the status quo, i.e., contract out orbital missions and continue to fund the decades-long fantasy that federal employees will one day put bootprints on the Red Planet. A vibrant vision for the future of manned spaceflight would eliminate NASA. As “Historical Analogs for the Stimulation of Space Commerce” documents, “1996 marked something of a milestone in the history of space access. In that year, worldwide commercial revenues in space for the first time surpassed all governmental spending on space.” The gap’s gotten bigger since then. While some zero-g ventures have stumbled, “the rise of a hospitality/tourism/entertainment industry” and for-profit “activities in the cislunar region” are no longer the daydreams of nerds. They’re close to realities.

If NASA’s dominance of spaceflight “is receding into the background as the 21st century progresses,” it’s a cause for celebration. So let’s go all the way, and vaporize a Cold War-era bureaucracy that doesn’t deserve a second act.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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