Space Privatization—from Cato to the BBC

In the premier issue of BBC Knowledge, the Cambridge University astrophysicist Martin Rees makes several provocative arguments about manned space flight. They are:

  • The completion of the International Space Station (ISS) comes with a price tag of $50 billion, with the only profit being the cooperation with foreign partners.
  • There is no scientific, commercial, or military value in sending people to space.
  • Future expeditions to the Moon and beyond will only be politically and financially feasible if they are cut-price ventures.

He concludes that fostering good relations with other countries is insufficient justification for the expenditures, and that NASA should move aside and allow the private sector to play a role in manned space flight. The cost of these activities must lessen if they are to continue, and that will only happen with a decrease or removal of government involvement. Rees observes that only NASA deals with science, planetary exploration, and astronauts, while the private sector is allowed to exploit space commercially for things such as telecommunications. However, there is no shortage of interest in space entrepreneurship: wealthy people with a track record of commercial achievement are yearning to get involved. Rees sees space probes plastered with commercial logos in the future, just as Formula One racers are now.

Those ideas may sound radical, but not if you’ve been following the work of the Cato Institute. As long ago as 1986, Alan Pell Crawford wrote hopefully that “space commercialization … is a reality,” and looked forward to the country making progress toward a free market in space. The elimination of NASA was a recommendation in the Cato Handbook for Congress in 1999.

Edward L. Hudgins, former editor of Regulation magazine, wrote a great deal about private options in space. In 1995, he testified before the House Committee on Appropriations that the government should move out of non-defense related space activities, noting the high costs and wastefulness incurred by NASA. In 2001, Hudgins wrote “A Plea for Private Cosmonauts,” in which he  urged the United States to follow the Russians (!) in rediscovering the benefits of free markets after NASA refused to honor Dennis Tito’s request for a trip to the ISS. Hudgins testified again before the House in 2001, this time before the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics. He noted that since the beginning of the Space Age, NASA has actively discouraged and barred many private space endeavors. This effectively works against the advancement and expansion of technology, while pushing out talent to foreign countries who court American scientists and researches to launch from their less-regulated facilities. In “Move Aside NASA,” Hudgins reported that neither the station nor the shuttle does much important science. This makes the price tag of $100 billion for the ISS, far above its original projected cost, unjustifiable.

Michael Gough in 1997 argued that the space “shuttle is a bust scientifically and commercially” and that both successful and unsuccessful NASA programs have crowded out private explorers, eliminating the possibility of lessening those problems. Molly K. Macauley of Resources for the Future argued in the Summer 2003 issue of Regulation that legislators and regulators had failed to take into account “the ills of price regulation, government competition, or command-and-control management” in making laws for space exploration.

We welcome the BBC and the Astronomer Royal to the cause of private, entrepreneurial exploration of the cosmos.

Hat tip to Michael Gough and Diana Lopez.