Earlier this year, a Bush Administration panel
on space exploration recommended that NASA increase the role
of private contractors in the push to permanently settle the
moon and eventually explore Mars. But it appears that neither
the administration nor anyone else has yet considered the true
free-market solution for America’s moribund space program:
There is a contradiction at the heart of the space program:
space exploration, as the grandest of man’s technological advancements,
requires the kind of bold innovation possible only to minds left
free to pursue the best of their thinking and judgment. Yet by
placing the space program under governmental funding, we necessarily
place it at the mercy of governmental whim. The results are written
all over the past twenty years of NASA’s history: the space
program is a political animal, marked by shifting, inconsistent,
and ill-defined goals.
The space shuttle was built and maintained to please clashing
constituencies, not to do a clearly defined job for which there
was an economic and technical need. The shuttle was to launch
satellites for the Department of Defense and private contractors—which
could be done more cheaply by lightweight, disposable rockets.
It was to carry scientific experiments—which could be done
more efficiently by unmanned vehicles.
But one “need” came before all technical issues:
NASA’s political need for showy manned vehicles. The result,
as great a technical achievement as it is, was an over-sized,
over-complicated, over-budget, overly dangerous vehicle that
does everything poorly and nothing well.
Indeed, the space shuttle program was supposed to be phased
out years ago, but the search for its replacement has been
largely because space contractors enjoy collecting on the overpriced
shuttle without the expense and bother of researching cheaper
alternatives. A private industry could have fired them—but
not so in a government project, with home-district congressmen
to lobby on their behalf.
There is reason to believe that the political nature of the
space program may have even been directly responsible for
disaster. Fox News reported that NASA chose to stick with non-Freon-based
foam insulation on the booster rockets, despite evidence that
this type of foam causes up to eleven times as much damage to
thermal tiles as the older, Freon-based foam. Although NASA was
exempted from the restrictions on Freon use, which environmentalists
believe causes ozone depletion, and despite the fact that the
amount of Freon released by NASA’s rockets would have been
trivial, the space agency elected to stick with the politically
correct foam.It is impossible to integrate the contradiction.
To whatever extent an engineer is forced to base his decisions,
not on the realities of science but on the arbitrary, unpredictable,
and often impossible demands of a politicized system, he is stymied.
Yet this politicizing is an unavoidable consequence of governmental
control over scientific research and development.
Nor would it be difficult to spur the private exploration of
space—it’s been happening, quietly, for years. The
X Prize was just the tiniest hint at the incentives for private
groups to break out of Earth’s atmosphere. The free market
works to produce whatever there is demand for, just as it now
does with traditional aircraft. Commercial satellite launches
are now routine, and could easily be fully privatized. But all
this private exploration is hobbled by the crucial absence of
a system of property rights in space.
Imagine the incentive to a profit-minded business if, for instance,
it were granted the right to any stellar body it reached and
We often hear that the most ambitious projects can only be
undertaken by government, but in fact the opposite is true.
The more ambitious
a project is, the more it demands to be broken into achievable,
profit-making steps—and freed from the unavoidable politicizing
of government-controlled science. If space development is to
be transformed from an expensive national bauble whose central
purpose is to assert national pride to a practical industry,
it will only be by unleashing the creative force of free and
We have now made the first steps toward the stars. Before
us are enormous technical difficulties, the solution of
require even more heroic determination than that which tamed
the seas and the continents. To solve them, America must unleash
its best engineering minds, as only the free market can do.
Robert Garmong, Ph.D. in philosophy, is a writer for the
Ayn Rand Institute, which promotes the philosophy of Ayn
author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Send comments