One reaction to President Bush's plan for a permanent moon base and a trip to Mars is, "Great! It's about time NASA stopped going around in circles in low Earth orbit and returns to real science and exploration." Unfortunately, there's not a snowball's chance in the sun that the same agency that currently is constructing a downsized version of its originally planned space station, decades behind schedule, at 10 times its original budget, a few hundred miles up in orbit, will be able to build a station several hundred thousand miles away on the moon.
If Americans are again to walk on the moon and make their way to Mars, NASA will actually need to be downsized and the private sector allowed to lead the way to the next frontier.
The lunar landings of over three decades ago were among the greatest human achievements. Ayn Rand wrote that Apollo 11 "was like a dramatist's emphasis on the dimension of reason's power." We were inspired at the sight of humans at our best, traveling to another world. In announcing NASA's new mission, President Bush echoed such sentiments, speaking of the American values of "daring, discipline, ingenuity," and "the spirit of discovery."
But after the triumphs of Apollo, NASA failed to make space more accessible to mankind. There were supposed to be shuttle flights every week; instead, there have been about four per year. The space station was projected to cost $8 billion, house a crew of 12 and be in orbit by the mid-1990s. Instead, its price tag will be $100 billion and it will have only a crew of three. Worse, neither the station nor the shuttle does much important science.
Governments simply cannot provide commercial goods and services. Only private entrepreneurs can improve quality, bring down the prices, and make accessible to all individuals cars, airline trips, computers, the Internet, you name it. Thus, to avoid the errors of the shuttle and space station, NASA's mission must be very narrowly focused on exploring the moon and planets, and perhaps conducting some basic research, which also might serve a defense function. This will mean leaving low Earth orbit to the private sector.
Thus, the shuttle should be given away to private owners. The United Space Alliance, the joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed-Martin that refurbishes the shuttle between flights, would be an obvious candidate. Let a private owner fly it for paying customers--including NASA, if necessary -- if it is still worth flying.
NASA also should give up the money-draining space station, and sooner rather than later. The station might be turned over to international partners or, better still, to the mostly private Russian rocket company, Energia -- and the Western investors who were in the process of commercializing and privatizing the Mir space station before the Russian government brought it down for political reasons. If need be, NASA can be a rent-paying station tenant.
NASA centers that drive up its overall budget but do not directly contribute to its mission should be shut down. If the government wants to continue satellite studies of the climate and resources or other such functions, they could be turned over to other agencies, such as EPA and Interior Department.
NASA and the rest of the government should contract for launch services with private companies, which would handle transportation to and from low Earth orbit. Contracting with private pilots with private planes is what the Post Office did in the 1920s and 1930s, which helped the emerging civil aviation sector. Further, to facilitate a strong private space sector, the government needs to further deregulate launches, export licensing and remove other barriers to entrepreneurs.
Creating enterprise zones in orbit would help make up for government errors of the past. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher proposes a "Zero Gravity, Zero Tax" plan that would remove an unnecessary burden from "out-of-this-world risk-takers."
NASA will also need to do business in new, innovative ways. For example, if a certain technology is needed for a moon mission, NASA could offer a cash prize for any party that can deliver it. The federal government used such an approach for aircraft before World War II, modeled after private prizes that helped promote civil aviation.
Even if the federal government foots the bill for a moon base, it should not own it. Rather, NASA should partner with consortia of universities, private foundations and even businesses that are interested in advancing human knowledge and commercial activities. NASA could simply be a tenant on the base.
Or consider a radical approach proposed by former Rep. Bob Walker. The federal government wouldn't need to spend any taxpayer dollars if it gave the first business to construct a permanent lunar base with its own money a 25-year exemption from all federal taxes on all of its operations, not just those on the Moon. Think of all the economic activity that would be generated if a Microsoft or General Electric decided to build a base! And the tax revenue from that activity probably would offset the government's revenue losses from such an exemption.
If we're true to our nature, we will explore and settle planets. But only individuals with vision, acting in a free market, will make us a truly space-faring civilization.