Space, the Private Frontier

The New Astronauts

Take a close look at the above picture – because these are America’s new astronauts.  Sort of.  At least one of them is technically a former astronaut, but now they all work for private firms who are developing their own spacecraft and other intergalactic capabilities.

How can they afford to develop these capabilities when the return on investment is so low, and the risk so high?  Tax dollars, of course.  It was announced yesterday that

NASA has awarded $50 million through funded agreements to further the commercial sector’s capability to support transport of crew to and from low Earth orbit.

Rather than rekindling the national support for the space program, or even working on some sort of collaborative arrangement between NASA and the private entities (much like happens with other methods of transportation – see railroads, for an example), NASA has decided that it will just outsource this process entirely, and then when the occasion arises that they need to send people to the International Space Station, they’ll just buy them a seat like everyone else.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden characterized these moves in the following way:

We’re departing from the model of the past, in which the government funded all human space activities. This represents the entrance of the entrepreneurial mindset into a field that is poised for rapid growth and new jobs. And NASA will be driving competition, opening new markets and access to space, and catalyzing the potential of American industry. This is a good investment for America.

A good investment?  Perhaps – but only at the $50 million price tag that was announced at this particular event.  A little more investigation reveals that the actual “investment” is going to be much larger than $50 million.  Space.com is reporting that Obama’s new 2011 budget includes

a $6 billion boost over five years to support commercial spaceflight development, but scrapped NASA’s Constellation program to build new Orion spacecraft and Ares rockets aimed at returning astronauts to the moon.

For the math impaired (myself included) that is 120 times as much money as the “investment” that NASA announced today.  NASA also failed to announce that this meant the scrapping of both the Constellation program and the Orion and Ares programs.

Essentially, this budget is saying that the powers that be do not feel that we can build a successful low-earth-orbiting craft and return to the moon for less than $6 billion.  Does that make sense?  On it’s face – no.  Not at all.  In context, it makes fantastic sense.

The Apollo mission cost $150 billion to $175 billion in 2003 dollars – more in 2010 dollars.  Now the privatization looks like a bargain, provided they can deliver what NASA seems to be promising.

The danger here, of course, is that NASA wasn’t motivated by profit in 1968 and they’re not motivated by profit in 2010.  Each of these new partners, however, is motivated by nothing but profit, always has been, and always will be.  Profit can be a great motivator, and there is much value in allowing the free market to determine progress, costs, and supply.  There are some things, however, that we, as a society, have decided should not be subjected to the whims of the free market.  These things include military and law enforcement forces, and the entirety of the judicial system.  Other things that were formerly sacrosanct have been recently unleashed to the aforementioned market forces – I’m looking at you, Supreme Court of the United States.

Coming on the heels of such a landmark ruling, perhaps citizens should prepare for a continued onslaught of market-based life.  Institutions that used to be the bedrock of American society – space dominance, corporate/political separation, and even military supremacy – have been privatized, outsourced, and sold.  Meanwhile, more money that people can seem to count is flying out the door to banks and insurance companies who turn around and give it out as bonuses:

America runs the risk of very literally selling the ground out from under itself.  We must change our direction – drastically, and soon.  Otherwise, we will quickly find ourselves in the Privatized States of America, which is a place that I do not want to be.

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