Green Room

Finally, Obama Has the Right Stuff! (Maybe…)

posted at 9:34 pm on February 1, 2010 by

I’m just now picking my jaw up from the floor: Barack H. Obama has just decided to privatize — space exploration?

The Obama administration today will propose in its new budget spending billions of dollars to encourage private companies to build, launch and operate spacecraft for NASA and others. Uncle Sam would buy its astronauts a ride into space just like hopping in a taxi.

The idea is that getting astronauts into orbit, which NASA has been doing for 49 years, is getting to be so old hat that someone other than the government can do it. It’s no longer really the Right Stuff. Going private would free the space agency to do other things, such as explore beyond Earth’s orbit, do more research and study the Earth with better satellites. And it would spur a new generation of private companies – even some with Internet roots – to innovate.

It’s a wonderful idea, and I couldn’t agree more: If we actually give a green light to private space exploration — and a modest guaranteed market by renting space for our astronauts to fly on private launches — then the Moon will come soon enough: Thar’s gold in them thar craters! (Along with every other element we could possibly need to sustain an industry, and even extract breathable oxygen and create potable water for “Lunatic” colonists.)

Obama has underfunded it, of course, committing only $5.9 billion; but at least we’re headed in the right direction. Here’s the part where the president is bang on:

The White House said the program was too much like the 1960s Apollo mission and would require large budget increases just to get astronauts back on the moon by 2030.

The (unsourced) CBS report gets to the heart of the problem with the American space program (and everyone else’s, to be fair) — though even this piece misses the “why” of it. The “back to the Moon” proposal by President George W. Bush was a big-government, top-down, military-style reenactment of the Mercury-Gemini-Apollo program of the 1950s-70s: The govenment creates a massive bureaucracy (NACA/NASA), which throws billions of dollars at the project, achieves its goals in the worst way possible… and then cancels the entire program. And leave us not forget that it was a big-government Republican president, Richard M. Nixon, who killed it.

The legacy of the government monopoly approach to space explation is an aging Shuttle fleet (currently three [3] flyable birds), plus a misguided and mismanaged “International Space Station,” as our entire space program for the last thirty-plus years.

By the time Nixon canceled Apollo, NASA’s bureaucracy had become sclerotic, unimaginative, anti-capitalist (seriously — they actively suppressed private space launches), penny-foolish and pound-foolisher (killing the Air Force’s X-15/X-20 program, for example, so it wouldn’t “compete” with NASA’s Mercury program), and in many ways an impediment to space exploration and colonization, not a boon.

NASA still conducts desultory research into more long-term goals; but where are the solar sails for manned space exploration? Where are the alternatives to launching from ground to low-Earth orbit (LEO), something to replace the “disintegrating totem poles” of the Saturn V or the one-shot solid booster rockets used to lift the Shuttle? There are many remarkable designs out there, but NASA seems uninterested in developing them.

For that matter, where is such a simple vehicle as the unmanned orbital booster, which would orbit in LEO, latch onto some cargo (like a satellite) launched to Shuttle-range, and just boost it up to a higher orbit? That way we wouldn’t have to put boosters on every satellite we launch, an incredible extra mass that must be carried up.

And as is obvious from the subject of this post, it’s been thirty-seven years, one month, and 21 days since we last put a man on the Moon; and if everything went well, it would be an additional twenty years before we returned: More than a half century between Moon landings is unconscionable. Clearly, the big-government approach to space exploration, industrialization, and colonization is a complete flop… as is the big-government approach to virtually everything, with the possible exception of national defense and interstate highways.

But the Regulators already have their long knives out for the irregulars; back to the Long Beach Press-Telegram story:

But there’s some concern about that – from former NASA officials worried about safety and from congressional leaders worried about lost jobs. Some believe space is still a tough, dangerous enterprise not to be left to private companies out for a buck. Government would lose vital knowledge and control, critics fear.

Yes, God forbid we should allow filthy capitalists out for a buck into the space program. Far better that everything be in the hands of altruistic federal bureaucrats — out for a pension.

The Press-Telegram notes the example of the airline industry. Let’s expand upon that: If the federal government were still in charge of air transportation, there would be one airline for the entire country. Every flight would originate from the same airport, and planes would depart once every three months; each would carry no more than eight passengers — three of whom would be either decorated military pilots or flight officers, and the rest would be Highly Trained Specialists&TM; certified by the “National Air Transportation Administration”.

Every airplane flight would cost $800 million, and half of them would be scrubbed on the runway, with no refunds.

And after takeoff, each plane would jettison half its engines into the drink, requiring six months of maintenance and a total rebuild before its next flight. (That’s why we need a massive fleet of three Shuttles.)

Why is private enterprise better for space exploitation? Manifold reasons:

  • Cost: A private space-launch business has to turn a profit, so it must keep costs down; this in turn keeps the price down, and more and more customers can launch to orbit, creating a positive feedback loop dragging the human race into space.
  • Reliability: A business must hit its schedule nearly every time, or it loses business to its competitors (think of FedEx); therefore, reliability becomes much more of a premium than with a government monopoly.
  • Responsiveness: It must continually offer new services to stay ahead of said competitors; it must create markets, create and exploit opportunities, and move rapidily to seize the initiative.
  • Wealth creation: It would open up whole new markets for orbital manufacturing of machine parts, pharmaceuticals, and very large structures that would collapse under Earth’s gravitational pull (see next bullet); new markets mean new wealth for everyone.
  • Energy abundance: Entrepeneurs would quickly realize that the biggest market of all would be energy: solar cells in orbit — outside 99% of the Earth’s atmosphere and 100% of Earth’s weather — can generate orders of magnitude more electricity than terrestrial solar cells, and considerably more than even a nuclear power plant.

    Remember, in orbit, you can make the collection surface as big as you want, several square kilometers; energy can be beamed back to Earth by microwave lasers or somesuch.

    Here is where the conservatives’ demand for large power availability and liberals’ demand for non-carbon energy production can meet in the middle in a true bipartisan Kosmic Kumbaya!

  • Innovation: Finally, it’s the private sector, not the government, that is truly innovative; if we want humans in space on a full-time, permanent basis, it’s private enterprise or bust.

    At the moment, we’ve got “bust.”

It’s a little odd that such a lover of big-government Obamunism and nationalization of private resources would suddenly go all capitalist over the space program; I worry that this will just turn out to be more empty rhetoric. But entrepeneurs can use even empty rhetoric to fly below the radar and actually bring about some of the dreams that Obama has woven, perhaps unintentionally and against the president’s own better judgment. Certainly there is no lack of players champing at the leash to jump into a newly revitalized private space-launch industry:

The leading contenders – most are mum at this point – to build private spaceships include established aerospace giants, such as Boeing Co. of Chicago and Lockheed Martin of Bethesda, Md., which built most of America’s rockets and capsules.

Boeing and Lockheed Martin have existing rocket families in Delta and Atlas, which launch commercial and government satellites regularly and reliably, but for the moment aren’t rated by the government to be safe enough for humans. That may change.

But it’s the newer space guard that brings some excitement to the field. PayPal founder Elon Musk may be ahead of most. His SpaceX already has a Falcon rocket and Dragon capsule. Other companies being mentioned include Orbital Sciences of Dulles, Va., Bigelow Aerospace of Las Vegas and Sierra Nevada Corp. of Sparks, Nev.

Republicans should seize this idea to show they’re not just the “party of No,” as Obama loves to claim. Here’s a chance to champion science, space research, and private enterprise and entrepeneurship, all while showing some bipartisan flair! The GOP would have to be utter morons to let this fish loose.

Oh, wait…

Cross-posted on Big Lizards

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Good synopsis, Dafydd.

Generally speaking there is no reason why private enterprise shouldn’t have shared community access to all the research data that NASA has gathered over the years such as radiation levels at which orbital levels, friction/wear analysis of materials, and insulation research, to name but a few. The X Prize demonstrated that there are several good ideas that show potential without the heavy markup of government cost models. Besides, NASA has gotten the funding from taxation anyway; we all own the data.

Also, I’m kinda looking forward to there being a Walmart on the moon. Nothing like progress.

Robert17 on February 2, 2010 at 8:04 AM

This would be a terribly exciting victory for the free market. Abundant resources, no environmental concerns, and all the freedom of the stars…

As I type this post, I have a picture of the Enterprise-E on my desktop, so, I may be a little biased. ._.

KinleyArdal on February 2, 2010 at 10:04 AM

Caveat: When firms know they are working for the government, they often jack up the price. Will this tend to happen here?

jeanie on February 2, 2010 at 12:42 PM

I’m pretty disappointed the GOP is missing this opportunity. It’s obvious that Present Obama thinks that the private sector will fail (and I wouldn’t put it past his administration to put regulations in place to guarantee that outcome), but for the Republicans to buy into the notion too is a disgrace. It’s such an easy way to burnish our credentials on science and engineering – and physics is so easy a field to do that in, compared to the Dems’ “ownership” of the softer sciences and biology!

NASA should have never been an “operations” agency – it should have glommed onto aerospace basic-research projects the same way its predecessor (NACA) did for aeronautics. Do the heavy brain-sweat in the government labs, and license the techniques developed there to American companies, allowing American aerospace to own the heavens the way they do the skies.

Blacksmith on February 2, 2010 at 11:15 PM

The problem may be that he is actually planning to make sure that the “private industry” space effort will not be allowed off the ground. That way he will destroy the NASA effort, but make sure that no-one else can try either.

sabbahillel on February 3, 2010 at 2:39 PM

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