A Plea for Private Cosmonauts

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Like a good capitalist company, Russia’s mostly privatized space agency,Energia,wants to make money by carrying a private paying passenger to theInternational Space Station (ISS). NASA, the U.S. government’s space agency,opposes this pro-capitalist venture. How things have changed. It used to bethat the United States and the Soviet Union debated the merits of theirrespective economic systems, with the former favoring free markets and thelatter liking government-owned and operated enterprises.

The passenger, American Dennis Tito, did not select the ISS as hisdestination of choice. Facing difficult economic adjustments, Energia haddecided to scuttle its Mir space station and to accept NASA’s invitation tobecome an ISS partner. Fortunately, in December 1999 MirCorp, a company40-percent owned by private Western investors and 60-percent owned byEnergia, was formed to make Mir financially self-supporting. To that endMirCorp accepted Tito’s offer of a reported $20 million for a flight to Mir.Unfortunately, NASA helped block MirCorp’s efforts and in the end theRussians could not keep the station in orbit. The 15-year-old station wasallowed to burn up in the atmosphere.

Tito and Energia figured it would be an easy matter to simply switchstations. After all, Russia is a partner with NASA on the ISS and hassupplied the modules that constitute the core of that station.

But NASA objects to Tito’s trip, calling him a “tourist” and suggesting thathe might endanger the station and his fellow station dwellers. But “tourist”is a misleading term. Tito is not some camera-toting joyrider. To pursue hisdream of flying in space, he has been undergoing training since August 2000in Russia with cosmonauts who don’t feel endangered by his presence. Indeed,they briefly refused to train in America for a joint mission with NASA whenthat space agency announced it would not let Tito fly.

This situation is ironic. NASA objects to a private Russian company sellinga trip into space to a private individual in exchange for private funding.But NASA itself saw no problems when it gave trips into space to Sen. JakeGarn and Rep. Bill Nelson, neither a professional astronaut, in order tosecure taxpayers’ funds for its programs. (Let’s grant that Sen. John Glennwas qualified to fly, though his shuttle mission was more PR than cuttingedge science.)

Concerning Tito, NASA administrator Daniel Goldin asks, “Just becausesomeone says they have that money to fly, is that reasonable?” The answeris, “Yes!” The people with money are called “customers.” They pay for goodsand services. In a free market, eager entrepreneurs meet their demands.

Goldin says, “The shuttle costs so much a flight” and implies that $20million might not be the right price. But since the Russians are supplyingthe transportation, it is for them to determine the price of the journey.Because a NASA shuttle flight costs at least $500 million, Goldin probablyfinds it unbelievable that the Russians’ costs could be significantly lower.Goldin might also argue that the price of an actual stay on the station isnot covered by the $20 million. But the problem is that a government stationis not subject to market pricing based on demand. In any case, the $50billion space station construction costs are high because the government isbuilding it.

No matter what the outcome, the lesson of NASA’s fight with Tito is clear.Top NASA officials will run the space station like old Soviet apparatchiksrun their factories. The station’s costs will be far higher than the goodsand services it produces. And those officials will have no clue or careabout whether the station meets real market demands.

The solution to the problem is the same as for the old Soviet factories.When the station is complete it should be spun off as a private entity or atleast be operated on a commercial basis by private companies. The Russiansare rediscovering the benefits of free markets. It’s about time NASA did thesame.

Edward Hudgins is director of regulatory studies at the Cato Institute.