All Commentary
Thursday, October 1, 1987

A New Space Policy: Free Enterprise

Mr. Phillips is a free-lance writer based in Houston, Texas.

Since the Challenger Shuttle disaster effectively grounded America’s space program in January 1986, President Reagan has increasingly called for private businesses to enter the space industry. Space Services Inc., which made a successful test launch in 1982, plans to begin commercial operations in late 1988, as does start-up faro American Rocket. Aerospace veterans Martin Marietta and McDonnell Douglas already have received orders for satellite launches. Despite this, America still trails the Soviet Union in satellite launches, and the Europeans and Japanese are quickly catching up.

The launching of Sputnik in 1957 was taken by many Americans as a signal of Soviet technological superiority. To calm a frightened public, the U.S. government poured billions of dollars into the space race and, to this day, the American space program has been a virtual government monopoly.

In the aftermath of the Challenger explosion, editorial writers and columnists across the nation condemned the politicalization of NASA. However, they failed to realize that any agency whose budget is politically controlled—such as NASA—is eventually politicized. As Challenger demonstrated, when political expediency replaces scientific judgment, the results can be tragic.

Over the years, NASA’s monopoly has been enhanced by subsidization, legislation, and regulation. Space Services Inc. President David Hannah Jr. told a Houston space conference shortly after his company completed its successful launch: “I consider the slowest aspect of our program is going to be politics. Getting the necessary approvals from the State Department and the United Nations is going to be much harder to work than the technical implementations.”

In a report for the National Center for Policy Analysis, Dr. Jerry Grey, publisher of Aerospace America, elaborates on this: “Private companies in the satellite communications industry must answer to 13 federal regulatory bodies, two international organizations, and four international treaties.”

Using Proven Technology

Proponents of a government-run space program argue that the vast capital and resources required for such ventures can best be obtained by government. But private firms are responding to this problem by moving toward smaller equipment and by using older, proven technology. This saves millions of dollars. Additionally, many companies are forming partnerships on projects, such as Space Industries Inc. and Westinghouse, which are planning a joint space laboratory. McDonnell Douglas is looking for a partner to manufacture pharmaceuticals in space.

The costs of doing business in space are high, but so are the potential rewards. Companies which start small and use their profits to expand could quickly become major factors in the development of space. Furthermore, once many of the risks have been eliminated, other firms will be more inclined to exploit the unique opportunities offered by space.

Some backers of NASA contend that there are parallels with the federal government’s role in the development of the early West. Space, they argue, is merely another frontier to be conquered. While this is true, it must be noted that the government’s role in developing the West was pretty much limited to protecting property rights, e.g., establishing the rules by which the vast tracks of unsettled land could be claimed, and building a series of forts to protect pioneers. The real development of the West—railroads, mines, agriculture, etc.—was mostly a product of private enterprise.

Until the Challenger disaster, the Shuttle was to be America’s principal launch vehicle. Expendable launch vehicles were to become obsolete. Consequently, when the Shuttle program shut down in the wake of the loss of Challenger, America was left without a dependable launch system, and U.S. satellite launches have fallen more than a year behind schedule.

Private companies, by their very nature, will not all use the same launch vehicles. Martin Marietta will use its Titan rocket; McDonnell Douglas will use its Delta rocket; Space Services will use the Conestoga, while American Rocket will use a hybrid vehicle. Thus, if one system fails, there will be others to fill the gap.

There is an old adage about putting all your eggs in one basket. America’s “space eggs” have all been placed in one basket—NASA—and the consequences are painfully clear. It is time for a space policy which eliminates this government monopoly and allows America’s entrepreneurs the freedom they need to reach for the stars.