Wednesday, October 05, 2011

The Private Sector: Should it replace the government in space?

There are a lot of questions worth raising when it comes to the idea of the private sector playing a role in space.  Those of us who see how the private sector operates in other industries (health, banking, and so on) have legitimate concerns about how they will act when granted full access to space.  SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are certainly on our minds and seem to be doing great work, but remember that the these companies are not the same as Exxon or Walmart.  They have difference missions.  Space isn't profitable...yet.

I don't want to suggest that SpaceX is a bad thing.  In fact, I think what SpaceX and the recent study on how the private sector is cheaper than the government in the space industry should make us wonder what it is the government has been doing wrong and what it is the private sector can offer the government, and the country
But we should also ask ourselves whether we want profit-driven enterprises running our space programs.  Is that a good thing?  I think the answer is an emphatic maybe.  On the one hand, the space industry in the U.S. is heavily regulated, in part because, well, flying giant missiles full of explosive fuel, even if you're only doing it over the ocean, is dangerous.  But the private sector likes to loosen those regulations, which could pose a variety of problems for society.
On the other hand, the private sector does have a way, in most cases, of developing efficiency within a budget.  Those are skills I think NASA has failed to inherit from its ancestors.  The Apollo missions weren't cheap, but they didn't have enormous budgets either.  And they were doing things far more noticeable to the public than what NASA has been up in the last thirty years.  Scientific discoveries are crucial to the advancement of our civilization, but perhaps what the private sector can offer is a way to get more people into space and elsewhere.  Perhaps the private sector can bring back the sense of wonder brought about by the Apollo missions.

But we also have to be careful.  SpaceX and Virgin Galactic and so on are great programs, the former of which, if I recall correctly, gets a good deal of funding from NASA.  But turning space into our highways has serious consequences for people and the planet.  The private sector has a lot to offer, but it also has to be given a leash.  We're not talking about building cars or building homes.  We're talking about launching dangerous machinery into the air, through the ozone, and out into space.  That's not something to be taken lightly.  We need to think long and hard about how we want to include the private sector into our space programs.  More importantly, we have to figure out how the private sector can take us above and beyond where we are now.  Cost and operational efficiency are great in a time of financial uncertainty, but we also have to realize that getting left behind will have devastating societal consequences, whether here in the United States, whose program is already suffering after the retirement of the Space Shuttle, or elsewhere.
What does everyone else think?  How big of a role should the private sector have in the space industry?  Should it replace the government?


Xaq said...

My personal feelings is that privatization is a good thing. As long as it is regulated. We as a society and government are very familiar with regulation; i.e. FDA, FCC, FAA, so on. I don't think there will be any specific problems in that regard. I mean as Beam Me Up pointed out space vehicles are effectively missiles filled with highly explosive fuel.
Opening up space exploration to the private sector will be very helpful to innovation. The Delta Clipper is a perfect example. NASA didn't want the project, but after the very public success of McDonnell/Douglas prototype they had to take it for PR reasons. They then upgraded the vehicle, in some cases with parts, specifically the oxygen tank, that was extremely substandard. Between that and off again on again funding and the threat of outright cancellation it no wonder the flight crews were burnt out enough to make mistakes and the thing crashed. This is not to say that these type of things don't happen in the private sector. The difference is no company is going to take on a project it doesn't want and then effectively run it into the ground. There is no profit margin in that. If they took the project at all it would just be shelved so they didn't waste money.
In the end getting rid of NASAs monopoly on space in this country will be a good thing. It will open the doors for new people and ideas. And yes while ideally we don't want people doing thing just for the bottom line, NASA already has to do that when they justify their expenses to a congressional committee, they just don't have to make a profit.

Dave Tackett said...

Good question Paul. My personal BELIEF is that it should not - but should be allowed to operate in a parallel manner.

NASA must not only continue, but be greatly expanded. [I'm a broken record but multiply NASA's budget by ten, transfer the costs of Earth atmospheric satellites to NOAA, and demand greater accountability of government contractors]

However private industry must be allowed to innovate away from government interference. Asking an over-regulated private industry to enter into space is akin to buying a gelding for your stud farm. It may go through the motions, but the results won't be worth talking about.

The Health and Banking industries are really not comparable situations. The US health industry is the best in the world IF you can afford it. While I don't find that acceptable for health care but it would be wonderful for a space industry (If there were regular trips to the moon for anyone who could afford it, I would celebrate even if I was not one of those who could make the journey).

The reasons for the banking failure are both complex and controversial, but among the many reasons given is he fact that banks were required to make high risk housing loans to lower income applicants (Morally laudable but economically disastrous).

As for "giant missiles full of explosive fuel," true, but there are countless private ones flying at all times yet virtually no one has trouble sleeping at night because of the airline industry's jet fleet.

It is important to remember that when there were tragedies at NASA, administrators were called before Congress, scolded, and warned that if there were further tragedies they might be scolded again. If the same tragedy happened in a private company, they would likely be out of business. There is far more incentive not to fail.

But before I sound to pro-business in space, it is worth remembering that all of the most interesting areas of space exploration have little if any potential for profit for decades or longer. Let the private industry have their space hotels and maybe even lunar excursions, but never forget NASA (and ESA, JAXA, etc.) are still needed for real science.

Beam Me Up said...

I could go on and on here, but as far as NASA is concerned, I agree Dave. But the present environment it works in have got to be modified. To many chiefs and not enough indians is the old phrase. NASA has got to work in an environment that takes on science that the private industry is not willing to foot the bill. Too many with a vested interest make policy. A bit more altruistic maybe?