Posted by: spacewritinguy | March 19, 2008

Conservatives in Space – Chapter 3

The Space Economy: The Next Conservative Revolution

Bottom Line: Conservatives have an opportunity to demonstrate the value of limited government by opening space to private development and settlement.

If conservative lawmakers wish to usher in a space economy fueled by consumer demand, that economy could radically change Americans’ relationship with their government. This would not be the first time such a change has occurred. We had such revolutions in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan and in 1994 with the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives under Newt Gingrich and the “Contract with America.” It can happen again.

The Next Step in Our Evolution: The Market State

Historian Phillip Bobbitt writes in The Shield of Achilles that we are in the process of transforming from a nation-state to a “market state,” where the government or privatizes “non-critical” activities like social welfare. Assuming this transformation is in fact happening, conservatives can use the situation to create a radical shrinking of our national government.

The market-state offers an attractive model for the future because it is more in line with our national traditions than the welfare state. According to The Shield of Achilles, the market state will aim for a smaller role in public affairs, both social and economic. Decisions made by the American public since 1991 bear this out, from the rejection of socialized medicine (“Hillarycare”) in 1993 to the Republican revolution of 1994 election to the Welfare Reform Act of 1996. The common factor in all of these actions has been the public desire for smaller government. We have an opportunity to affect the course of future history by backing away from massive domestic spending and large-scale interventions overseas. Space settlement can provide a central part of that revolution.

***’s Glenn Reynolds writes in An Army of Davids that “Nineteenth- and twentieth-century technology seemed to favor aggregation, uniformity, and large size. Twenty-first century technology seems to favor diversity, variety, and small size-along with a much higher degree of interconnection.” In discussing space, Reynolds states that only private sector competition can reduce the cost of spaceflight, which means less government activity.

Libertarian, state-shrinking ideas are gaining more popular currency. The FairTax Book by Congressman John Linder and radio talk show host Neal Boortz proposes a means of eliminating the IRS through indirect consumption taxes. Meanwhile, on the spending side of the equation, Charles Murray’s In Our Hands proposes eliminating vast portions of the welfare bureaucracy by simply doling out $10,000 to every American every year. These examples of limited government can be expanded to space. George W. Bush has placed a lot of emphasis on promoting freedom and democracy, individual responsibility, and an “ownership society.” And while he is more partial to strong government than many conservatives, he is at least continuing the progress of the market state by promoting individual opportunity. The next best place to demonstrate the value of an ownership society would be in orbit or on the Moon.

The Government’s Monopoly on Space

Space is an immense, unknown place, into which we might expand our civilization. Yet what sort of civilization will expand into it–a society that believes in government management of all activities–or one that trusts its citizenry?

Right now, the space frontier more closely resembles socialism than capitalism. Government is the primary consumer of space services and the primary designer of space transportation hardware. Instead of allowing the private sector to design spacecraft that might meet public demand, our government has dictated all space technology development-usually based on military or political considerations than on what the market might demand.

The Beginnings of the Space Economy

A robust market has multiple customers and producers or service providers. Space tourism can utterly transform the space economy. Richard Branson, by creating Virgin Galactic, has bet that he can make money on tourist flights into space. Assuming all 7,000 people who signed up for a $200,000 ticket actually put down their money, Branson stands to make $1.4 billion in revenue!

This is the starting point of an economy that can be built on consumer demand rather than government demand. Of course that $1.4 billion assumes that Branson will have no competition, that his operating costs won’t go up or down, and that he won’t get any repeat business. Nevertheless, tourism is a known commodity, and that knowledge brings investors. Left to itself, the space tourism business can develop and grow just like any other new business.

If Americans want to see private industry in space, they need to support government officials and policies that increase private sector development, not only government activities.

Why Government Management is Bad for the Space Economy

As I explained in Chapter 2, NASA is the wrong organization to build and expand widespread human presence in the solar system. Government has had a miserable history of trying to pick “winners and losers” in technology (e.g. canals, railroads, trucking) and often ends up subsidizing businesses its policies had previously run out of business. As Ronald Reagan put it, “The government’s view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.” Rather than take that route, conservative members of Congress need to encourage the revolution that is slowly building among smaller space launch companies, like Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites and Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

Another way to reduce government interference in space activities would be to transfer existing government space activities to one or two jurisdictions, instead of the five or six that exist now–by treating space activities as transportation issue rather than a national security issue. At present, the following government agencies have a say in whether a space launch company can send something into orbit: the Department of Defense, Department of Commerce, Department of State (if the launch involves international trade), Department of Energy (if the payload is nuclear-powered), the Environmental Protection Agency (to verify the environmental impact of any space-related activity) and the Federal Aviation Administration (to license and set rules of conduct for space vehicle operators).

The Space Economy Can Open without Compromising Security

Several retired military officers have told me that I am naïve in trying to extract space activities from the realm of “national security.” This concern has been part of the space program since the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957. As recently as the late ‘90s, Loral Space Systems was charged and fined by the State Department for exporting rocket-related technology to the People’s Republic of China. Why? Because rockets and the fuels they carry are considered munitions under current International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). Under ITAR, space hardware export approvals are the responsibility of the State Department, not the Department of Commerce.

Given the unsettled state of the world, ITAR won’t go away any time soon. We now have two hostile states developing rocket technologies capable of launching nuclear weapons: North Korea and Iran. The threat posed by hostile nations launching missiles at us or our allies is still real, so we want to ensure that our technology does not get into the hands of al-Qaeda or some other terrorist group.

However, the International Space Station–a project dedicated to international cooperation in space–also is suffering from ITAR problems because engineers from different nations cannot share information with each other without clearance. In fact, a case can be made that ITAR actually hurts national security by putting space-related companies out of business or out of the aerospace industry because they are unable to sell their products. Such a situation can erode our skills as a spacefaring nation.

The good news is, there may be ways to change the regulations incrementally, using a form of “legislative jujitsu.” Some items, of course, will always be subject to scrutiny, such as rocket engines or guidance hardware. However, ITAR hurts second- and third-level suppliers and small businesses as well, as it blocks sales of non-critical parts that are commercially available on the worldwide open market. If the regulations undermine the very security they are supposed to protect by closing critical American businesses, Congress is more likely to modify ITAR to allow sales of low-sensitivity space hardware to reliable allies.

There may be other ways to ensure the security of American-made rockets abroad. For instance, space tourism launch facilities could be placed at U.S. military bases, most of which are used to handling high-energy fuels and security. The same security precautions used to protect our fighters, bombers, and other military aircraft also could be used to protect parked spacecraft. I would argue, however, that this is a fallback position; the goal is LESS government involvement, not more.

Also, it must be noted that a 600,000 lb. spacecraft (the proposed weight of the Lockheed Martin X-33 VentureStar, which never flew) still would be less dangerous to the public than the crash of a fully-loaded 910,000 lb. 747-400 or a million-pound A380, and those vehicles continue to be sold worldwide.

Ideally, the Department of Transportation could regulate space activities much like commercial aviation, acting only to keep competition honest and protect consumers from dangerous practices.

Consumer Demand Drives the Space Economy

Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne, the winner of the $10 million dollar X Prize in 2004, is opening a new frontier of economic development by building suborbital tourism rockets for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. Rutan, Branson, and other entrepreneurs are creating a new market niche.

Much like the aviation industry in the last century, money from these early adventurers will in turn fund new technologies and vehicles to meet the needs of a growing industry. As the space tourism industry grows, travel will become safer, more efficient, and more affordable to more customers. Space tourism also will provide opportunities to advance the aerospace disciplines, reduce the cost of all space activities (including exploration and settlement), and enable the United States to remain a leader in science and technology.

The commercial space market has existed since 1970, beginning with communication satellites. Today, the world market for satellite-based services–including telecommunications, television, global positioning systems, and Earth observation (weather, environmental, search and rescue)–is valued at nearly $100 billion. The problem with the commercial space market so far is that it hasn’t been large enough to attract private investment in the technologies needed to lower the cost of access to space. Space tourism holds great promise as an economic “driver” for more frequent flights, leading to lower launch costs, which will in turn attract other customers to the space market.

Government Should Be a Facilitator, Not a Primary Customer

Consumer demand for space launch services would require aerospace companies to develop reusable, highly reliable spacecraft. This demand for reusable spacecraft will push our design and manufacturing technology to new levels, and our nation’s best and brightest individuals will be drawn to the challenge of building this new frontier.

Private-sector and government research into space technology for commercial flight operations will improve spaceflight capabilities; develop spinoff technologies which could benefit NASA and other government space endeavors as well as non-space activities; and help maintain our nation’s technological pre-eminence in science and technology. Reusable, reliable spacecraft can also reduce the current costs of satellites, on which we depend for communications, entertainment, weather forecasting, environmental management, search and rescue operations, and national security.

National investments in space technology are critical for our nation to remain a nexus of scientific and technological creativity. U.S. market share of commercial space launches has dropped from 100% in the early 1970s to around 30% today. That percentage will continue to drop as Europe, Russia, Japan, and China develop and improve their own rocket systems. The engineers and scientists who sent Americans to the Moon are retiring or, sadly, dying off. The United States has lost over 600,000 scientific and technical jobs in the past 13 years. NASA’s over-60 staff outnumbers its under-30 staff three to one and there are no signs of replacement on the horizon. The number of American-born students taking degrees in aerospace and related technologies has been steadily decreasing since the 1980s. An open frontier with opportunities for all can offer the best incentive to our young people to reach for the stars.

Clearly the space tourism market exists, and the time has come to exploit it. It is time for the private sector to take the lead in expanding the frontiers of human possibility and for government to return to its role as explorer and incubator of innovative technologies. Private sector ingenuity applied to government research goals can revolutionize space travel and bring our nation back to its pioneering heritage of exploring new frontiers.

Space Can Be a Laboratory for Decentralized Government

A primary lesson in Western history has been the importance of decentralized power. Other cultures have centered around a single, powerful city or empire (“universal state“), which has prevented the development of, and need to accommodate, competing ideas and political players. The Western process has not always been even, smooth, or peaceful, but it has led to broader political participation by more citizens than anywhere else on Earth.

The largest, longest-lasting universal state was the Roman Empire. After Rome fell, Europe splintered along linguistic, tribal, and religious lines into many nations, which constantly fought each other to maintain a balance of power. After Rome, Spain and Britain each built empires that were larger than Rome’s, but neither lasted as long or, more importantly, held dominion of competing nations within Europe. Nations that did attempt single-nation rule like Napoleon’s France and Hitler’s Germany were eventually defeated by coalitions of nations unwilling to accept a single sovereign over all of Western Civilization.

The United States learned its own lessons in the value of decentralization. The American system was designed by our Founders to encourage as much freedom at the local level as possible. Successful experiments in one locale could be copied elsewhere, just as unsuccessful or distasteful communities could be held up as examples of “what not to do.” It is this tradition of strong local autonomy and identity that has kept American civil society prominent in national decision-making while in Europe and elsewhere, the default assumption is that the government speaks for all or sometimes simply dictates to all.

The problem we have faced since the Great Depression and World War Two is that Franklin D. Roosevelt (followed later by his protégés John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson) changed the nature of government’s relationship with the American public. More and more experimentation has been done at the federal level, with a corresponding loss of power and freedom at the local and state levels. While this centralized structure might ensure more national consistency in laws and practices, it does have one major defect: if the federal government’s experiment fails, the entire nation suffers, not just a single state, city, or township.

So what does this little civics lesson have to do with settling space?

Our nation has over two centuries of history lessons to draw upon for developing new frontiers and new economies. We know what works: ensuring the rule of law, protecting individual property rights, lowering taxes, reducing regulations to make it easier to start legal businesses, and ensuring free and unfettered trade.

Now consider the potential political arrangements small colonies of human beings could design across the craters of the Moon, the hills and canyons of Mars, or in self-contained space habitats in Earth orbit. The more experiments individuals are allowed to try on a local level, the less likely they will be to submit to an overarching, uniform system of laws and practices.

One source of political disengagement in America has been the individual’s feeling that his or her vote does not matter in the face of a massive, convoluted political process and state. In a society of small towns and smaller jurisdictions, the voice of one person has more weight and a better chance of being heard. If such a state is not available here on Earth, it is left to communities of individuals on other worlds to establish their own way of doing things.


  1. I like your writing style. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    – Sue.

  2. An interesting post that has spelt out the options that the government has while regulating space travel. The freedom to explore new frontiers is what enables inventions and discoveries. And Science cannot be curbed by politics. There are a lot of other areas (genetic engineering, stem cell research etc.) where ethical questions obstructs the advancement of science.
    Thankfully space exploration isn’t curbed by such forces. It is a question of invention, viability and profit.

    By the way By the way, you might want to take a look at this post – Future of Commercial Space Travel – Predictions, Companies, Technologies that also discusses the future trends in space travel.

  3. >>There are a lot of other areas (genetic engineering, stem cell research etc.) where ethical questions obstructs the advancement of science.<<

    Actually, I read a comment recently that should give space advocates pause. A guy wrote, “We should get rid of the space program entirely. It’s got entirely too big of a carbon footprint.” As soon as something touches the third rail of climate change, it immediately becomes an issue for politics, if not ethics.

    I’ll have a look at that link, thanks.

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