Send the space-bureaucrats to Mars

By Harrison Searles

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

As the space shuttle Discovery is decommissioned and retired from service, it is time that the government of the United States rethink the role that government has to play in the future of space exploration. The reason for this is that it is necessary to contemplate whether the resources that have been and will be allocated to the space program has been worth the output it has produced. Despite all of the praise that has been heaped on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for the past decades, it is clear that its output is the subject of hype and that it has also been an organization that has been imprudent in its utilization of resources. If there is to be future progress in space exploration, then what needs to happen is not sending highly specialized, billion-dollar missions into space for the curiosity of scientists and welfare for the aerospace industry.

Instead, what must happen is a dramatic decrease in the costs in order for mankind to have any future in space and this is a task of economizing resources that is best left to the free market.

For the past three decades after the end of the Apollo missions in 1972, NASA has existed in a state without a clear objective to accomplish and has instead existed in a nostalgic limbo. Indeed, much of NASA has served as welfare to the post-Apollo aerospace industry as insignificant missions that are sent in and out of Earth’s atmosphere with much fanfare. This has had the result of merely keeping the aerospace industry alive, but little innovation has occurred. While the scientific gadgets that are hurdled into space may have become smaller and more advanced, the most important feature of the space program: the costs of getting payload beyond the grasp of Earth’s gravity, has yet to reach economical levels. Instead, despite the fact that NASA lives off of the reputation of blazing the trail for future activity in space, ever since the breakthrough of the Saturn rockets, it has yet to make real a more cost-effective means of launching into space.

On the face of it, this may seem like an obtuse and excessively critical view of NASA. Of course, critics of this judgment would bring to the table projects like the International Space Station or the Hubble Space Telescope. While the Hubble Telescope may be of great use to astronomy, astrophysics and cosmology, it has not only been beset by technical issues since its launch, but it is not clear-cut whether its advantages over Earth-bound observatories warrant its costs. The ISS is almost a complete waste of money on a project that is more a post-Cold War make-up hug between the space programs of Russia and the United States than a project that has any utility, or even relevance, to humanity’s supposed future in space. In addition, NASA is also heavily politicized, first serving the interests of politicians in Congress and then space exploration. Evidence for this is that even though solid rocket boosters for the space shuttle were the least preferred means of propulsion from an engineering perspective, among other things a solid fuel booster can never be shut down once started unlike other types of fuel, it was chosen because it was produced by a company in Sen. Orrin Hatch’s (R-Utah) state.

Without a doubt, the space program has been the beneficiary of both a wave of hype ever since the American government thought it was critical to land a gadget made in America on the moon before a gadget made in the USSR was as well as low expectations from the general public. The public seems content to watch missions be launched into space, or even lost (need I mention the recent loss of a $424-million mission earlier this month), with little accountability for either how they use resources or whether their goals are even worth pursuing. The space program, despite the fact it may be the pet program of many, is not sacrosanct.

Eventually, all talk about NASA and the future role of government in space exploration must come down to a judgment regarding whether a bureaucracy put in place by the government is the best means of attaining the ends desired. Here, there can be only an unequivocal answer: no.

The future of mankind in space requires an institution that is an environment that encourages unforeseen innovation and that depends not on the designs of men, but rather by where spontaneous order brings them. In short, what is needed is a market in which not only are competitors not crowded out by the government, but also in which space-entrepreneurs can try out a vast array of plans based not on the approval of a single board of central planning, but rather on the confidence of investors. A market will be far more sensitive to the demands of the public regarding how the space-industry ought to evolve and rather than simply expecting money for their projects, as do space-bureaucrats, the space-entrepreneur would have to support his enterprise on providing actual services to consumers. Indeed, in the past years private enterprise has already shown its capability to organize missions into space when SpaceX, a company founded by one of the co-founders of PayPal, created the line of Falcon Rockets.  

In the end, NASA’s mission of preparing the way for further involvement of the human race in space is not best accomplished by a public bureaucracy. Instead, it is time that the government end its involvement in the aerospace industry and let private enterprise be the force that propels humanity into whatever future there may be.

Harrison Searles is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].