Why the private sector can't take the lead on space exploration.
The likely failure of a military satellite by Elon Musk’s SpaceX is only the latest evidence that privatization will not save, much less boost, the American space program.
We’re struggling to handle cargo deliveries into low earth orbit, dependent on the Russians’ ancient Soyuz craft to reach the International Space Station. It’s difficult to believe this is the same country that landed men on the moon in 1969. A significant share of today’s population has no memory of that achievement, much less what most of us expected (e.g, that by now we would be on Mars and beyond).
At the height of NASA funding in the mid-1960s, the federal government invested more than $46 billion a year in today’s money. The fiscal 2018 request for NASA is $19.1 billion, about 0.5 percent of the total federal budget. To be sure, commercialization efforts are also partly funded by the Department of Defense and other agencies.
Today’s privatization is a result of President Barack Obama’s cancellation of the Constellation program, proposed but consistently underfunded by President George W. Bush. It planned on a return to the moon, then on to Mars. In its place, Obama largely oversaw eight years of drift at NASA, with some notable achievements by unmanned craft deep in the solar system and beyond. His administration invited the private sector to fill the void, and in jumped traditional players such as Boeing, plus hobbyist-billionaires such as Musk and Jeff Bezos.
The problem is that only highly subsidized low-earth-orbit shots are economically viable. Mere commercialization doesn’t ensure that the private sector can do for space exploration what it can for, say, a supermarket. If “In space, no one can hear you scream,” market forces don’t work there, either. The wonderful price discovery mechanism will always flash back: Stay home.
To be fair, part of the glory days of NASA was a result of the Cold War, the space race with the Soviet Union. But it was more — it was what we did as Americans, as a nation. Those days of space exploration were a mixed venture, with contractors such as Grumman, North American and Lockheed — but with NASA in charge. It was a great collective national enterprise, and not merely for private profit. To be sure, the space program led to numerous scientific breakthroughs with earthbound benefits. Even today, every dollar invested in NASA yields $10 in the economy.
The Trump budget for NASA is a 4 percent increase over Obama’s last request. That’s a turn for the better. But it will take will and more federal investment to get back to the future. As in many other areas, China is moving ahead in lunar exploration while America remains stagnant or retreats.
[UPDATE] In a prepared statement, SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell said:
“For clarity: after review of all data to date, Falcon 9 did everything correctly on Sunday night. If we or others find otherwise based on further review, we will report it immediately. Information published that is contrary to this statement is categorically false. Due to the classified nature of the payload, no further comment is possible.
“Since the data reviewed so far indicates that no design, operational or other changes are needed, we do not anticipate any impact on the upcoming launch schedule. Falcon Heavy has been rolled out to launchpad LC-39A for a static fire later this week, to be followed shortly thereafter by its maiden flight. We are also preparing for an F9 launch for SES and the Luxembourg Government from SLC-40 in three weeks.”
Today’s Econ Haiku:
Stings workers and customers
To warm up Wall Street