Time to defund NASA?

Posted: Nov 21, 2004 12:00 AM

The most important news story of this fall, ultimately more important than the re-election of the president, was the awarding of the X Prize to Burt Rutan for his SpaceShipOne flights. For it shows that private enterprise is both willing and able to enter space. At a profit.

The Space Age has launched into a new era, the Industrial Space Age. So it's time to rethink NASA.

Now, recently, NASA had big news, too. Its X-43A scramjet broke the world speed record for an atmosphere-burning aircraft, going nearly ten times the speed of sound. It achieved not only speed, but glided down to the earth's surface for a soft landing. An impressive feat, and one that news accounts proclaimed would usher in a new age of space travel.

But after the soft landing in the ocean, NASA abandoned its multi-million dollar plane to sink as junk. Contrast this with SpaceShipOne, which cost a tenth of NASA's effort and has shot up into space several times and come back down for re-use.

This is no small contrast. NASA is still mired in the old "throw money away" method of space travel. Of course, the new plane is still in its early stages, and was controlled remotely, not manned. But the idea of testing such expensive equipment and throwing it away seems wasteful, as if millions of dollars that went into it were nothing, and the jet itself, after the test, was of no more value than a model airplane.

Burt Rutan, on the other hand, demonstrates the real savvy of the new age: safety, reusability, economy. Rutan's spacecraft, not NASA's, presages the future.

The argument for a heavily funded space agency made some sense before private enterprise got interested. Tax money and government direction jump-started the space age, before private enterprise did, or could have. But things are different now.

There is no reason that private enterprise could not soon take over the job of placing and even fixing commercial satellites in orbit. Since 1984, the Office of Commercial Space Transportation ? a division not of NASA, but of the FAA ? has licensed over 150 private flights, including those of SpaceShipOne. Indeed, NASA's Shuttle program may have done more to retard the industrialization of space in the past twenty years than anything else, simply by distracting attention and efforts away from better technology.

NASA's most newsworthy efforts are something else again, its probes into deep space. Now, it's very hard to argue against research. The accumulation of knowledge is a good thing. But these efforts come at great expense to the American people, whose representatives seem congenitally unable to restrain themselves and rationally prioritize spending. American public debt is accumulating at a much higher rate than scientific knowledge, and in this context a moratorium on pure research is surely in order.

Maybe NASA should remain, as an umbrella or watchdog organization. Maybe not. The Office of Commercial Space Transportation seems to be doing a good job. But no matter what its ultimate size and shape and scope, NASA can and should built down. Now.

And what about the Bush administration's proposed manned mission to Mars? Yeah, right. Let's not get caught in that ludicrous boondoggle. We're already building a rain forest in Iowa!

What to do with the over-expensive, problem-riddled Space Station? One idea: auction it off to industry, and see what happens.

Americans and scientists and the current space industry must wean themselves from the idea of subsidy ? a point I often make, of other industries, in my Common Sense e-letter. No matter how expertly NASA charges corporations for its services, such as satellite placement and repair, the very existence of a government-funded service bureau introduces a corrupting element into the industry.

Private enterprise can bloom in space. But only by getting NASA and government subsidies out.

Arguably, that's exactly where some industries should be: in a place where pollution has almost no chance of harming life. And business will find all sorts of uses for weightlessness, for minerals, for the power of the sun's radiation. The sooner business makes the Earth-Lunar system a thriving cosmic cosmopolis, the sooner deep space exploration and planetary protection from asteroid hits ? things that might argue for a continued role for NASA or another government agency ? will be funded as a matter of course. Without onerous taxation.

As all this happens ? as businesses start up, fail, regroup, achieve, and progressively recreate the world as we know it ? keep in mind Burt Rutan's words, long before he won the X Prize, soon after he and his brother circled the planet in an aircraft without once refueling:

I want to thank Ronald Reagan for providing and maintaining this environment that was devoid of government regulations that would've made this thing impossible in any other country that I can think of. I only filled out two pieces of paper for the U.S. government. I'm serious. We have an application for air-worthiness and an application for the tail number on the airplane.

There's nothing like killer regulation to kill enterprise. Instead, let the Space Age be an age of freedom.