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space (spās) n. 1. space beyond the atmosphere of the earth.

prag·ma·tism (prgm-tzm) n. A way of approaching situations or solving problems that emphasizes practical applications and consequences.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Why NASA? Why Private Space?

Darnell Clayton left a comment on my earlier post of the Wall Street Journals $50 billion Moon base prize idea. Basically he said: "I think it would be better via NASA, that way if something goes wrong, then we have somebody to blame " and " the private sector may have the passion but lack the financial resources for multiple attempts at the prize"

This got me thinking about the NASA cheerleaders vs. the Private Space guys (the IRC as Mark Whittington likes to call them). Is it possible we could view the foundations of their arguments and come to some useful middle ground.

As far as NASA supporters go, I think Darnell's views are a solid foundation to work from. The basic core beliefs are:

  1. NASA has more money
  2. NASA has put men into space
  3. NASA is accountable to citizens
  4. Private industry doesn't have the capital to support massive space activities

Lets examine each point objectively (pretending we don't really care).

Does NASA have more money and conversely does Private industry have enough money? I would agree that NASA has a concentration of money with about $15 billion a year budget. However, Boeing spent over $1 billion in the early 1960s to develop the 747 (over $6 billion in 2005 dollars). That was one company for a single jet. The GDP for R&D in this country is for 2005 was $320 billion. In 2005 $22 billion was invested in venture capital. There is a total GDP for 2005 was a little over $12 trillion dollars. I think it is safe to say that if industry was to jump into the pool of the space industry, they have the money. The private space industry currently gets a fraction of this money, but the American economy for all it's size, is very flexible when potential profits are good enough.

It is hard to argue with point two, since only NASA, Russia, and China have point men into orbit (Scaled Composites of course has put men into space, but not orbit). Of course it doesn’t immediately follow based on logic, that they are the only entity that could put men into orbit.
In a complex democracy it is difficult to really have any government agency accountable to the people. NASA is accountable to Congress and the President, but as space exploration is a low priority item nationally, representatives are mainly known for using NASA to fund pork projects for their own districts.

Now to continue with Private Space, here are the basic axioms as I see them:

  1. The government is inefficient & private industry can do things much faster and cheaper
  2. Everybody wants to go to space if they could just get the chance
  3. NASA is only out for their own interests and generally screws private companies whenever possible

Point one is generally true, I would say. However, there are specific cases were the government is a much better administrator. The military is a good example. For all it's inefficiencies, it would be hard to find someone who wants to privatize the military. There is to many possible conflicts of interests to allow our national security to be run for profit. Scientific research is another place where I would argue government funding for the good of all is safer than complete privatization. Does this mean that NASA is one of these types of industries? During the cold war I would say yes. Currently, I doubt it.

I would it is true that when it suits their goals, private industry is very efficient and inexpensive in developing new products. However, when it isn't they can block progress better than any bureaucracy (non-gas running cars, for instance). Industry needs a profit goal to jump on an idea. As you may have noticed, most of the private space companies developing new ideas are run and funded by idealists. They have a vision above profit motive, but for it to really move en mass, the profit has to be clearly defined.

Point 2 is difficult for me to remove myself from, as I have dreamed of space travel since I was little. However, I know people who wouldn't go up even if it was free. The truth is, while a majority of people express interest in going to space, very few are willing to do anything about it.

Point 3 is tough. I think is has been true in the past, that NASA has been a roadblock to private space development, lately, they seem to have come around (e.g. centennial prizes). The fact that NASA won't hand over the shop to private space doesn't mean they hate it. Large entities move slowly. I think it is in the best interest of private space supporters and industry to work with NASA and to support space development wherever it can occur.

To sum up, NASA is not the devil. Private Space is not the Savors. NASA is not the savor, Private space is not geeks who have read too many comic books. I think as we move forward to a privatized space industry, NASA must be a part. However, NASA cannot continue as it has in the past if it is to open new frontiers. It must give up smaller kingdoms to expand humanities place in the universe.

Just my $o.02. Comments welcome.


Darnell Clayton said...

Good follow up!

Although I am more in favor for private competition (as they tend to waste less money) we would definitely have to push the "return to moon" mission back by probably at least ten years (the money just isn't there for the private sector).

I've heard some bloggers suggest that NASA should start a Centennial lunar prize worth up to $50 billion or 25 years tax freedom (or perhaps both).

Although this would be a good idea, our current politicians (on both sides) would not support the idea, as they have a dim view of the X-Prize Cup already (even though it's just starting to show some progress).

Perhaps NASA could build the rocket to get us there, and pay corporations to build the equipment to keep us there (a fair trade off).

But either way, its mostly going to have to be NASA getting us to the moon unfortunately, unless of course LiftPort can build a space elevator by 2020 (which they are scheduled to do by 2031).

Mark said...

Just a matter of clarification. I'm a big champion of private space. I've written about it in venues with far broader readership than certain blogs. But I (and I think you agree) also believe that NASA has a good role to play as well. Rather than competing, the public and the private complement one another.

I don't think that the WSJ proposal will work, mainly because no venture capitalist is going to invest money for a long term venture (and going to the Moon would be a matter of years if not decades for a private firm) solely on the basis of a government prize that can be taken away after any change of Congress or White House.

Anonymous said...

You are right it will take a decade for private space to get to the moon, but Allen, Bigelow, Musk, and Bezos have already started. That is why they will probably get back there first.

Sam Dinkin said...

Space was pre-sold to children growing up in the US. At around 13 years old, nearly all of us realized we couldn't be astronauts. This creates a kind of cognitive dissonance that makes it more difficult to get people to lift a finger to do spaceflight than to do something new. The "we can't complain" comment is telling: space organizations are defined now by their complaints about NASA rather than doing anything positive and forward moving to actually take up the gauntlet.