NASA

Another privatization screed

The Salt Lake Tribune carried an op-ed this week by Eric Peters (identified as “an automotive columnist for The Army Times and The Navy Times“) who argues that NASA should be abolished and US space exploration efforts should be privatized. Why? NASA, he believes, is “constantly being outdone by smaller and innovative private space ventures in places like Brazil, Russia, China, and, yes, even the United States.” Huh? China is not known for its private space ventures, and Brazil is not known for space ventures, period. (And one can make the case that, despite making considerable progress in areas like commercial launch and space tourism, Russian “private space ventures” are firmly controlled these days by Roskosmos.) “The American private sector,” he adds, “already has shown it can do a better and more cost-effective job of delivering passengers, cargo, satellites and science labs into space.” Passengers? Not yet, unless you’re counting SpaceShipOne. In addition, US commercial launch efforts have, to date not been cost-effective compared to foreign competitors, although companies like SpaceX may change that equation. (Peters notes that NASA has even acknowledged this, awarding “numerous contracts to private space contractors like SpaceX and Space Exploration Technologies”. That’s right, SpaceX and Space Exploration Technologies.)

Peters’ solution is that “Congress should end this travesty and turn over space to the private sector where success is the key ingredient because there are shareholders who care about the bottom line.” Sounds simple enough, and it does sound attractive. Sadly, Peters offers no details about how this would be done, how it would affect existing programs and agreements with other nations, and why Congress—some of whose members hails from districts and states that benefit from the current system—would agree to such radical change. It’s one thing to run around shouting “NASA delenda est!”, it’s quite another, it seems, to put forward a compelling, practical plan to make it happen.

9 comments to Another privatization screed

  • Chance

    Just out of curiousity, how would you privitize most NASA functions? Do you just advertise for contracts? Would you actually sell off divisions of the agency, along with the equipment and facilities? What was the last major agency in the US whose functions were formerly government, but then privitized? I was about to say the post office, but I’m not sure that’s a good example.

  • So what if he’s got all his facts wrong? It’s the vision that counts, isn’t it?

  • Mark R. Whittington

    Of course, the ironic thing about all this is that NASA has become more commercial friendly than it has been in its history.

  • Mr. Peters: . . . where success is the key ingredient because there are shareholders who care about the bottom line

    That, of course, is the problem. With the exceptions of communications and suborbital tourism, nobody who cares about the bottom line in the next decade is going to invest in private spaceflight. You are only going to invest in private spaceflight if you have an investment horizon of decades, or if you are motivated by something other than the bottom line. As it happens, there appear to be people out there who fulfill both of these requirements, but they will always be few and far in between.

    When Elon, et al, have actually mined an asteroid, then and only then will someone managing grandma’s money invest in mining asteroids.

    People like Mr. Peters are letting their ideology blind them to the basics of managing other peoples’ money.

    – Donald

  • Chris Mann

    He must be making a pretty strong argument if the NASA employed socialised spaceflight proponents are already stooping to personal attacks.

    Can any of you fanboys give one simple reason other than politics for why NASA must design, own and operate their space transport system? Lets lose this cost plus bullshit, put out a tender for ISS and lunar transport services starting from 2009 and let commercial providers bid on it. If Elon fails to deliver, Boeing, Lockheed and Grumman all have the expertise to step in and take NASA’s money.

  • With the exceptions of communications and suborbital tourism, nobody who cares about the bottom line in the next decade is going to invest in private spaceflight.

    Elon will be surprised to hear this.

  • Edward Wright

    > Can any of you fanboys give one simple reason other than politics for why NASA must design,
    > own and operate their space transport system?

    It’s an article of faith that private enterprise is only capable of operating in LEO and NASA is the only organization that can do anything beyond LEO.

    The fanboys don’t seem to notice all those communication satellites operating beyond LEO or know how they got there.

  • Nemo

    It’s an article of faith that private enterprise is only capable of operating in LEO and NASA is the only organization that can do anything beyond LEO.

    The fanboys don’t seem to notice all those communication satellites operating beyond LEO or know how they got there.

    That’s because the fanboys often omit the adjective “manned” when describing their article of faith. Most of us, including those who don’t share their faith, understand that the fanboys don’t care about comsats and that “manned” is implied. You evidently don’t.

  • Also, us fanboys recognize that comsats became a viable commercial industry through a set of “socialist” government projects — remember ICBMs, Intelsat, NASA experiments, and all the rest? The same will be no less true of future successful space businesses in the near term.

    Rand: Whatever he may claim, Elon, clearly, is not motivated by near-term profit. He has spent far more than he could possibly make at the prices he claims he will charge, even if he is in business for decades. Likewise, he has just accepted government subsidies. And, no, I doubt Elon would be surprised.

    – Donald