Green Room

To Infinity, and Behind!

posted at 4:41 am on March 11, 2010 by

A little over a month ago, I noted the shift in our spacefaring strategy towards privatizing space exploration and exploitation, a strategy pushed, astonishingly enough, by President Barack H. Obama:

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

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….

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…

I’m glad I tossed in that final cynical jab at the GOP (which may come to mean “grand obsolete party”); it makes me look less like a Pollyanna, sunny-side up nitwit. For just as we all suspected, the Republicans are so locked into the top-down “command science” that they join their Democratic colleagues in trashing the very idea of private manned space launches:

“As with all great human achievements, our commitment to space must be renewed and encouraged or we will surely be surpassed by other nations who are presently challenging our leadership in space,” Democratic and Republican members of the U.S. Congress from Florida wrote to Obama last week.”

Here is the new plan, as enunciated by the running-dog capitalist in chief:

Obama, in his Feb. 1 budget proposal, planned to increase NASA’s overall funding to $19 billion in 2011 with an emphasis on science and less spent on space exploration.

He would cancel the Constellation program’s Orion spacecraft and Ares rockets, after $9 billion and five years of tests. Constellation is aimed at returning astronauts to the moon in the 2020s to clear the way for a Mars mission.

Instead, Obama would spend $6 billion a year for five years to support commercial spacecraft development and pursue new technologies to explore the solar system in what the White House called “a more effective and affordable way.”

The Florida Republicans shake in their boots, terrified that private enterprise will surely lead to massive job losses (possibly even within the state legislature). But is it now Republican dogma that public spending creates more jobs than the free market?

It’s not just know-nothing congressmen in the Reptile State pushing the bright red panic button about private aerospace development. Here comes President George W. Bush’s NASA administrator, “explaining” — in the sense of “mocking the very idea” — why we must allow government to monopolize spaceflight:

Various members of the far-flung U.S. space community have been troubled by the change, such as former NASA administrator Michael Griffin, who struggled to get more funding for Constellation from the previous administration of President George W. Bush and believes Obama should stick with it.

“There’s a larger issue here,” Griffin said. “Does the United States want to have a real space program? Do we actually think we can have a robust, exciting, world-leading space program by hiring private enterprise to furnish it?”

Why yes, Dr. Griffin; many of us do support exactly that weird idea: In a capitalist state — or even whatever hemi-demi-quasi-capitalist state we currently inhabit — it’s always best to try the market first… and only haul out the big-government guns later, if a screaming emergency arises.

The bureaucratization of space exploration is one of the most disheartening aspects of contemporary society: Here we sit, verging on the sixtieth anniversary of Robert A. Heinlein’s classic, “the Man Who Sold the Moon” (1951); and our “leaders” at NASA still scoff at the preposterous thought that private rocket ships, free-market space colonization, and entrepeneurial expansion to the stars can actually work… maybe even better than Michael Griffin ordering his civil servants to innovate, on schedule.

My God. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. And so far, that’s where it bloody well ends, too.

Cross-posted on Big Lizards

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Well stated.
I think the real driver for LEO is to commission a NASA Sutra on zero-gee sex. We need research! Get busy, everyone.

NaCly dog on March 11, 2010 at 5:29 AM

The only problem with privatizing space exploration is that the private businesses spawned will not be able to afford to hire anyone.

percysunshine on March 11, 2010 at 7:19 AM

Dear Liar’s desire to privatize space exploration simply means that He does not care one wit about space exploration and doesn’t think there is anything to it.

I have faith in Burt Rutan, not in NASA administrators (at least since after the Apollo era.)

rbj on March 11, 2010 at 10:43 AM

Obama cutting the space exploration part of the National Aeronautical and SPACE Administration’s (NASA) budget has nothing to do with money or private enterprize, it has to do with the repurposing of NASA.

The Goddard school at Columbia University, home to Hanson & other kooks, will set the NASA agenda. This agenda has nothing to do with space or American exceptionalism, it is a tool for long term political power – remember AGW? NASA is a tool for him & the other progressives. Frankly this whole “private enterprise” for space exploration is nothing more than a manipulation of your values to his liking. Don’t be so naive.

batterup on March 11, 2010 at 11:28 AM

I think Percy is on the right track for the counter argument. You have to make a profit in a real business, and it’s really tough to find one in space exploration. I’m all for doing more from private business, but in this case we need some good ol’ government waste to get the base technology ready for profit.

Just call it R&D. By the way, I think profit is capable in 10-15 years. Someone’s going to have to have a good sales pitch to get money now. Go for it.

jdfister on March 11, 2010 at 11:33 AM

percysunshine on March 11, 2010 at 7:19 AM
What makes you think any sane space entrepreneur will be in the U.S. of A.? Plenty of South American countries sit right on the equator, a better place to launch from .. or just take the SeaLaunch approach – the name pretty much describes their approach, launch from barges out at sea.

Hate to be a pessimist, but the cheapest (and therefore most likely to be pursued by a business) way to get “space” done is to stay the heck away from the U.S. and Europe.


acat on March 11, 2010 at 11:38 AM

jdfister on March 11, 2010 at 11:33 AM
There’s still plenty of folks around with too much $$$$ and not enough brain cells. How much was Lance “n’Sync” Bass willing to pay Russia to go up?

A “space hotel” could be very profitable. Better, a “low earth orbit” conference center – imagine holding the Davos or G-whatever meetings somewhere that protesters *can’t* get to?


acat on March 11, 2010 at 11:40 AM

IMHO space exploration falls in what I call the Lewis & Clark Contradiction: The private sector won’t spend an enormous amount of resources to go exploring if they don’t know where they can make a profit, and nobody knows if they can make a profit out there or how until someone spends the money and goes out there.

The current efforts at private space exploration might with time actually catch up with the Mercury program of 50 years ago. Why would the government (for now) do much better than the private sector? Because NASA as originally envisioned was to work like the Department of Defense and dangle contracts for building space vehicles.

Because, when it all boils down to it, the engineers and programmers don’t have to design space vehicles. These skills translate perfectly into programming jetliners and smart bombs. As a matter of fact, to pay back those student loans and mortgages for homes near work, they are going to go where the money is. NASA was made to dangle out the kind of money that made it worth it for a given aerospace contractor to have a division of engineers and programmers dedicated solely to designing space vehicles and making them work. As of right now, the private sector can’t dangle that kind of money out.

And don’t think 0bama doesn’t know it.

Sekhmet on March 11, 2010 at 11:48 AM


Great ideas, and that’s where the deep pockets will look first. But take the price of a hotel and add a couple zeros to the end (in front of the decimal). That’s the base cost of building one in low orbit. And then you have to get people there, and that’s not via Southwest Air.

A few hotels in Vegas and Dubai start to look a lot more attractive… It’ll happen, just will have to have the vision and the dollars and the stones.

jdfister on March 11, 2010 at 11:49 AM

Privitizing NASA would be like privitizing the military– capitalism works, but only in businesses that are, by definition, going to turn a profit. Unless NASA intends to rely on selling something (I would certainly hope we don’t plan on offering up our technology to other countries like in the Civilization video game), they cannot be a self-sustaining, privately-owned operation.

RachDubya on March 11, 2010 at 12:33 PM

Ugh, I shouldn’t try to type before I drink my coffee.

RachDubya on March 11, 2010 at 12:33 PM

Instead, Obama would spend $6 billion a year for five years to support commercial spacecraft development and pursue new technologies to explore the solar system in what the White House called “a more effective and affordable way.”

That’s not privatization. It’s a subsidy.

The government already awards aerospace contracts to various businesses, and let me tell ya, it’s not the picture of economy and efficiency you seem to think it is.

RightOFLeft on March 11, 2010 at 12:43 PM

Well, one reason the government should fund space exploration is for the military benefits… We certainly want rockets that can reach the moon before Russia and China get the capability to set up nuke bases there, for example. However, I agree that most of the stuff NASA funds (Mars probes, etc) is wasted money from the perspective of national interests.

What I think NASA should be doing is making it easier for Americans to get into space. For example, we ought to be the first country to build a space elevator, whether that be 20 years away or 50. A “bridge” to space will vastly expand the economic opportunities that entrepreneurs can take advantage of — think of the transcontinental railroad, or the Panama canal.

I think it’s fair to use government funding for research and infrastructure that creates the conditions for private-sector innovation.

joe_doufu on March 11, 2010 at 1:36 PM

Project RAND in 1946 was the beginning of the American satellite program. Sputnik was in 1957. How many years later was DirecTV?

Because of the need to gather needed scientific data on various destinations within space before even thinking about sending someone up there, it can be decades of continuous unprofitable exploration before private industry is able to justify the costs of moving into space. We can untether NASA when we have reached a point where sending lots of people to an alien planet is profitable. Any attempt to untether before then can only be seen as an attempt to kill the space program.

Sekhmet on March 11, 2010 at 2:08 PM

Why yes, Dr. Griffin; many of us do support exactly that weird idea: In a capitalist state — or even whatever hemi-demi-quasi-capitalist state we currently inhabit — it’s always best to try the market first… and only haul out the big-government guns later, if a screaming emergency arises.

You’ve got it dead wrong here. The issue is far more complex than you appear to appreciate, and responding to a cherry-picked quote from Dr. Griffin with some smug conservative jingoism doesn’t advance your argument one whit. The Constellation program is the short path to regaining our manned-launch capability. It has real hardware right now, while the commercial sector is years away from preliminary tests of vehicles capable of reaching LEO. The Russian would love for us to depend on them for as long as possible, and it won’t be cheap — they’ve already announced that they are raising the cost to ferry American crew to the ISS after the shuttle retires. Before you trash Dr. Griffin, you should actually read all of what he has to say.

JayI on March 11, 2010 at 5:41 PM

First off, Dafydd, I ran into your blurb recommending Fred Saberhagen’s Merlins Bones recently. I just think it’s cool to have a sci-fi writer as a Greenroom contributor. I haven’t checked out any of your sci-fi stuff yet though.

On to the economics of space. The Space Shuttle/Titan/Ariane 5 systems all cost $5k to $15k per kilo lifted to LEO. The developmental private Falcon 9 Heavy, whose test engine firing was delayed this week, is projected to cost around $3.5k per kilo to LEO. Clearly, hauling waygu steak or water to orbit is not going to be cheap any time soon.

Comsats and their cousins are the only commercially viable space products at this time. In the near term (10-30 years) tourism, powersats, and microgravity manufacture have the most promise for some kind of ROI without counting government purchases of lift capacity.

Wiki has a nice summary of non-rocket spacelaunch systems. One or more of these will be needed to get the cost/kg down for the longer term. The environmental impact of thousands of chemical rocket launches should not be ignored either.

Settling space is humankind’s destiny, if we just have the vision and will to do it.

GnuBreed on March 12, 2010 at 8:07 AM

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