Posted by: spacewritinguy | May 1, 2008

Private vs. Government Space–Whose Advantage?

I have a running debate with a coworker about who is best able or most likely to develop space.

My coworker is a NASA true-believer. Grew up on Apollo, worships still at the altar of the Space Shuttle, is behind Constellation, if somewhat dubious of its political prospects.

I am the private-sector guy, more or less. I don’t worship Richard Branson, Burt Rutan, or Elon Musk. However, I have a strong belief that if we want the solar system developed and settled by individuals seeking profit rather than government agencies pursuing fluctuating national goals, then those are the types of people who will make it happen. Since this is my blog, I get to win this argument.

Here are the reasons why the government can’t win the long-term battle for settling the solar system.

Purpose and Budget: Profit is easy to understand: business exist to make them, year after year, for as long as they can. There might be some difference of opinion on how best to obtain those profits, but in the end, the business comes first. Profit is easier to sell, and perpetuate than some nebulous notions of national greatness, “investments in the future,” or prestige. Every year, Congress fights new battles over what it should do with the nation’s tax dollars. Political battles are relentless and getting more partisan every election. The priorities are subject to the whims and moods of the moment. The space program is a beautiful, very visible symbol of national greatness and effort. Its products are satellites, orbiters, telescopes, and landers going to or looking at distant places in the universe. Its benefits are manifold but invisible and unappreciated. Its budget is one of the few things that is blatantly discretionary. It is therefore an easy target for cuts. Advantage: Private Sector.

Efficiency: Do I really need to explain this one? Private-sector vehicles are built to do one thing very well, maximize profit, and performance while minimizing costs. Government-built vehicles must do many things well and maximize government (civil service) employment. Minimizing taxpayer expense is not nearly as important as minimizing risk–that means extra regulations, inspectors, and redundant systems. Advantage: Private Sector.

Exploration: This is a tough one for private-sector fans to accept, but exploration or research and development rarely pay unless they are subsidized. Barring “ego money” spent by one or several billionaires willing to take the hit, most private-sector investors want a guaranteed return on investment. Developing a known quantity like a rocket capable of lifting cargo to LEO is dicey enough. Building something that goes to Mars or mines for minerals on the Moon or an asteroid is seriously speculative. Generally, the U.S. Government has funded first-time opportunities like that, either through the military or some other branch. Government is best when it is paying for first-time development of new technologies, building infrastructure, and setting the rules of the road. These are activities that can be supported, once built, by taxes on revenues or use of the infrastructure. The revenues aren’t dramatic, and may at best break even. Governments don’t care about profit so much as keeping the wheels turning. Advantage: Government.

Accessibility: This one is a no-brainer for me, but it demonstrates the clear philosophical difference between myself and my government-centric coworker. In my mind, the only way we’re going to settle the solar system is to make it routine enough that astronauts do not have to make the trip. The whole space tourism thing is a crystal-clear example of attempting to make space financially accessible to private citizens who do not have special training, but just want to make the trip. My friend insists that space transportation is so difficult that my dream of a space economy affordable by non-astronaut shlubs like me is utterly unrealistic.

This line of thinking says that we’ll always need complex systems, space suits, and procedures; that such complexity will naturally require highly trained individuals; and that the need for super-competent individuals to handle all these systems will naturally keep space open only to the few. I respectfully but most forcefully disagree. Those are assertions, not statements of fact. Furthermore, the “space will always be complicated” theory ignores the ground-truth of computer technologies today.

Consider, for example, the advancement of musical entertainment just in my lifetime, where we moved from the phonograph (nearly unchanged since Thomas Edison invented it late in the 19th century) to the 8-track tape to the regular cassette tape to the compact disk to the iPod/MP3 player. Each of these new machines resulted from an advance in their inner workings, such an advance that most people living today have no idea of the theories underlying them, much less how to build or repair them. However, it is a proven fact in my family’s house that the kids know how to run the computer, TV, and DVD players better than their parents. A similar design philosophy can, will be, and is applied to the next generation of private-sector space development. If you make the underlying technologies more advanced and flexible, then the interfaces can be that much simpler. No astronauts are required to handle an iPod; why should they be necessary to wear a spacesuit?

There is also an elitism to a government-only space program that rubs me the wrong way. If the government is doing everything itself, that’s probably because they don’t trust private individuals to do for themselves. And while there are some things in which that is undoubtedly true (we have a professional, volunteer military), flying as a passenger or running a store on a space station should not be one of them. NASA’s desire to keep space clear of both national conflicts and commerce might have made sense 40 years ago, when only governments were flying, but we’re in a new era. The Russians are more capitalistic than we are in space–and how many tourists has NASA flown to the ISS? Zero. Advantage: Private Sector.

Long-Term Presence and Sustainability: This one, again, is a no-brainer for anyone who has had to watch budget battles on Capitol Hill. Every year it’s a battle of wills (seldom wits) as to which programs will get their requested budgets and which won’t. Businesses in orbit or on the Moon would keep running based on income. NASA personnel on other worlds (or even now on ISS) would face annual nail-biters as to what hardware would be built (or not), which staff would stay (or not), and which facilities would remain open (or not). Again, businesses don’t fight those battles: if the money is coming in, the business stays open. And if the owners/founders/managers don’t want to keep running the business, they sell to someone else who does.

Along those same lines, professional astronauts–explorers, geologists, astronomers, pilots, etc.–staffing a base are there to do a job. They most likely have expectations of coming home. Settlers–store keepers, mechanics, farmers, etc.–bring their families with them and have every intention of making the new place (Moon, Mars, orbital settlement, asteroid) their new permanent home. Our government is unlikely to send federal employees on one-way missions, nor are they likely to pay salaries, benefits, room, and board for employees on indefinite contracts. Advantage: Private Sector.

A lot of this, admittedly, is long-term thinking, and perhaps a little science-fictionesque in its outlook. But these are also arguments based on a reading of history. Governments are not set up to build permanent cities in space or on the Moon. They might help. They might contribute to the building or the infrastructure, but in the end, a long-term, thriving space economy will require private citizens conducting private business on their own or rented property. That is the fundamental difference, I believe, between my friend’s vision and my own: for him, the “space economy” is all about NASA, its prime contractors, and any New Space entrepreneurs responsible for putting hardware government employees into space. For me, the space economy is about civilians living, working, buying, and selling in space. To the extent that we each have a vision, then, I suppose each of us is supporting the horse most likely to get us there.


  1. Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

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