Obama Space

Like the proverbial stuck clock, Barack Obama occasionally gets something right. To my shock, I find myself wholeheartedly supporting the Obama administration's approach to manned space flight because it privatizes manned space flight, removing it from the command and control, centrally planned, and government-controlled activity it has been for nearly fifty years.

Why are they doing this? I haven't a clue. The real disappointment is that they choose to decentralize and privatize manned space flight while doing everything humanly possible to take over and control the rest of the American economy. My guess is that the $19-billion NASA budget is not large enough to warrant their interest and that most of the manned space flight activities are conducted in "Red States." As space writer Rand Simberg noted recently (and I am paraphrasing), "Hope they don't take interest in what is going on."

A short history of manned space flight is in order. NASA was conceived and executed as a way to beat the Soviet Union to the moon. It was spectacularly successful, and we won the sporting event in 1969. Little remembered is that there was at the time a parallel USAF manned space program conducted with X-15 flights out of Edwards AFB and a planned DynaSoar and Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) military manned space flight program. USAF crews had even been selected in the late 1960s for MOL flights. Both programs were canceled due to cost and budget overruns.

But it is important to remember that we beat the Soviets by out-Soviet-ing their manned space flight program. Our Germans did better than their German-taught Soviet rocket scientists. But everyone involved was a centrally planned and executed program type of guy.

Since the 1960s, American manned space flight has been the exclusive territory of NASA. And nothing has flown (with a single, shining exception) that has not been government-funded, designed, controlled, and operated. Over the last three decades, the shuttle has morphed from a vehicle intended to fly fifty times a year to three to five times a year.  Our bright guys and gals in the astronaut corps are relegated to flying in circles and have been doing so for over twenty years. There was an effort to move to private contributions, but the NASA bureaucracy and Congress, which has always viewed NASA as a jobs program for aerospace engineers, has successfully blocked it for the 25 years following the Challenger accident.

We free-marketers know that the free market can make improvements, cut costs, and make innovations based on the actions of the competitive marketplace. Manned space flight as conducted by NASA over the last fifty years had none of this. As a result, we have a 35-year-old design (shuttle) that flies very little and is increasingly accident-prone. In the 35 years from the Wright Brothers' first flight in 1903 to 1938, we went from the Wright Flier to the B-17. Why hasn't there been similar progress in manned space flight? The answer is that it has been a government monopoly for fifty years. 

The Obama space budget aims to break that monopoly.

What the proposed budget does is move NASA from an owner-operator of manned spaceflight to essentially a tour company. They plan missions, coordinate equipment and provisions, and most importantly, purchase tickets from commercial vendors for their future missions. 

This is an incredibly Big Deal. It is also a fundamental game-changer.

This budget essentially contracts out rides to and from orbit for people and equipment from the private sector. The criticism from the defenders of the status quo is that the private sector is incapable of doing what they promise it will do. But this is the proverbial self-licking ice cream cone, as the commercial vendors were never able to get sufficient business in direct competition with a government monopoly intent on defending its funding stream at all costs. 

There is large and vigorous community of entrepreneurs ready to take advantage of this opening and opportunity. They go under various names and descriptions. Do a search under the following terms: Elon Musk, Falcon launch vehicle, SpaceX, Burt Rutan, X Prize, Virgin Galactic, newSpace, Bigelow Aerospace, Space Frontier Foundation, XCOR Aerospace, and Armadillo Aerospace. There are many more, but this is a good start.

I vehemently disagree with the notion that we have given up the moon and elsewhere with this change. I believe that we will finally bring the strength of an unfettered, free, competitive, capitalist marketplace to the problems posed by manned space flight, and for the first time in our lifetimes, we will finally see better solutions, lower costs, more competition, and most importantly, far more people flying to, working in, living in, and staying permanently in space. This is no small victory for the Good Guys.

If the commercial world is pushing the competitive envelope, we end up doing things in an unexpected manner. For instance, the Earth sits in the middle of a swarm of near-earth asteroids (NEAs/NEOs). Part consists of floating piles of rubble. Part consists of inactive comets, with high percentages of their mass available in water and other ices. Things that contain ice become refueling stations for trips between Earth and other places farther out -- Mars, the asteroids and outer planets. If we can figure out how to use extraterrestrial water and other ices for fuel, air, and refueling stations or permanent outposts, we can literally walk to Mars, the asteroids, and the outer planets. We can go to stay. 

The solar system has been within our grasp since we walked away from Apollo. This budget has just opened the door to a private, commercial, free-market approach to moving out into space permanently. It is an opportunity that ought not to be ignored.

What we need to do as conservatives is decouple our very real and very justifiable revulsion to all things Obama and analyze this change in direction in light of the notion of free markets versus central planning. I think the choice is obvious. I have been involved in this effort for 35 years, and this is the best opening for the free-marketers since the mid-1980s. Let's not lose another generation to the government monopoly. Let's break it once and for all.

Alex Gimarc, USAF (ret.) has a Masters Degree in Space technology and is an Advocate with the Space Frontier Foundation, a free-market space organization. He blogs at Interesting Items.