05 March 2008|
The Starship Enterprise
How to make private space travel a reality
As space technology advances, more countries around the world seem intent on launching their rockets in a thinly-veiled attempt to create Space Race II. China, already having put a human into space, further demonstrated its celestial capabilities by recently shooting down an orbiting satellite. To Washington's Sinophobic lobby already hopped-up about inflated currency and devious trade practices, the Chinaman’s aerospace belligerence seemed to be cause for grave apprehension.
But America should not be afraid - far from it. Instead, we should be celebrating the advancement. Just like air travel in its infancy, space travel is a technology now finding its way from rich world governments and militaries to civilians around the world. And just like air travel, market competition should lead the progress.
As government satellites have become indispensable for private civilian use, space exploration and travel can similarly become accessible for mankind's commercial and leisurely demands. NASA, America's space program, currently enjoys a government-created-and-backed monopoly privilege and is, along with our military, the only American entity that legally ventures into space. Such government monopolies, like the Post Office or early railroads, are usually justified because it is believed that private companies cannot efficiently provide the service. While this may have been once true about space travel, technology has now revolutionized the galactic landscape.
The Brave New World
The first space-tourist, American millionaire Dennis Tito, doled out $20 million from his own coffers to the Russian authorities for the ability to go to space with their Cosmonauts. Tito chose Russia only because NASA first rejected his proposal to fly with them on the grounds that he was not a trained astronaut. Thus, in an embarrassing bit of irony, America’s refusal to fly Capitalism’s Neil Armstrong means that the only "commercial" space carrier currently available in the world is in the former Soviet Union. (And as is true of all government-sanctioned monopolies, especially Russian ones, they charge a hefty price.) But the tide of private competition is finally turning.
None other than Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson wants to be the first to offer sub-orbital flights to the general public. Currently, his White Knight Two and the Space Ship Two spacecrafts are scheduled to undergo a test flight program later this year and then finally launch commercial operations approximately a year later. Tickets start at $200,000, or 1% of the going Russian price. Now, if one competitor can reduce the cost of space travel this drastically, imagine the result when America's entrepreneurial craft is truly unleashed.
Until that day comes, however, American taxpayers will continue doling out billions of dollars each year to whatever the president feels “advance(s) U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests” through his state-controlled “robust space exploration program.” But what better way is there to advance America's scientific, security, and economic interests, than with our own money?
To boldly go where no entrepreneur has gone before
America should facilitate the progress toward private space travel. First, Congress should dissolve America’s space monopoly by transferring NASA from government to private ownership. Second, Congress should ensure efficient entry into the space travel market, levelling the competitive field for any investor or entrepreneur, thus ensuring that no one is granted privileges or exemptions that favor one over the other. This two-tiered policy will enhance the government's ability to stay focused on strategic defense and pressing geo-political issues without intermingling and distorting the enormous potential of a market for space. Finally, as for the billions of dollars in proceeds and taxes this policy will save Americans, they should go back to the people who sacrificed them to begin with, or perhaps be used for other ideas that my PI colleagues have previously outlined.
Currently, NASA creates and updates Fact Sheets covering all of its current missions, facilities and projects. The government should gradually auction off each project, to ensure an orderly transition to private control, and to also make sure they do not land into the hands of a few oligarchs at Abramovich, Khodorkovsky & Co. From the outset, this policy would provide for competition and a certain degree of specialization. Those NASA projects that truly fall under the umbrella of national security should be allocated to a branch of the U.S. military, which is where they originally belonged anyway.
As is the reality in every other industry, we should let the scientists, pioneers and entrepreneurs compete in the marketplace, instead of in the halls of Congress, and let the consumer decide to whom the share of the pie shall go. As recent experience has shown, competition in the marketplace lowers prices and increases consumer choice, and will continue to do so over time.
Looking ahead to this organization’s next Christmas party, we see a choice between flying to the Moon on first or second class, on Sir Branson's spacecrafts, and whether we'll have the option of paying a premium for a beautiful crew of flight attendants that cater to our beverage needs, a la Singapore Airlines, or whether we’ll opt for a more Southwest-esque travel package that merely includes water, nuts, and access to the lavatories. In either scenario, many more citizens will enjoy the choice, unlike today, where only those with $20 million can get in line with the Russians.
Alas, the virtue in the end is that it is not by the President's directive that America's economic and scientific strength is guaranteed, but rather by our own.