Did Lewis and Clark build their own wagons?
Posted by aogWednesday, 21 January 2004 at 22:00 TrackBack Ping URL

I’ve been in a running argument with Orrin Judd about President Bush’s space initiative. I believe that the federal government and NASA in particular are the biggest part of the problem, not part of the solution. I view Bush’s initiative as a perpetuation of a dysfunctional situation.

Mr. Judd notes that the Apollo project took us to the Moon. That’s true, but it was a sprint, not a marathon and once that goal had been achieved we could see the lack of endurance of the project. On the other hand, Judd defends the project as a grand project and not necessarily as economically rational. I have a more jaundiced view of such things, which remind me mostly of Soviet Five Year Plans or other socialist vanity projects like the Three Gorges Dam. Nationalized industries don’t work and I fail to see why a nationalized space industry run by NASA is viewed as an exception. Moreover, there is a form of Gresham’s Law‘s_Law where the presence of a nationalized industry drives out private competitors. One can see this with the X-Prize where the competitors have had more problems with regulations designed to protect NASA’s monopoly than with their technology.

I frequently hear analogies to Lewis & Clark in this respect. But it’s instructive to note that they didn’t design and build their own wagons, or breed their own horses. They just explored. I have no problem with NASA exploring. It’s the transportation company aspect that’s a problem. For instance, to get to Mars, NASA could design, develop and operate the transportation. Or it could buy it from the private sector, by offering to purchase supplies that are already in orbit around Mars. It would be the contractor’s problem to get the supplies there. Precursor robotic probes would also be an excellent way to test a companies ability to move objects safely to Luna or Mars safely. NASA could pay to have the probes moved, hiring only companies that had already placed one of their own probes in position. That would sponsor competition and allow multiple technologies and methodologies to be tried, rather than following a strategy that has failed over and over.

As for the morale boost, have we fallen so far that only government employees can inspire? What of the race to go around the world in a balloon, or an airplane, or the conquest of the poles? I would think that the capturing of prizes offered by government by private individuals or groups would be just as inspiring and far more interesting because of the competitive nature. It would also instill far more of a self-reliant, “can-do” attitude.

For all of these reasons, I don’t like Bush’s space initiative, which he could easily make far better. If privatizing is good enough for social security, why not for space travel?

P.S. Via Hit & Run we have a report of the kind of things NASA is doing instead of actual science:

U.S. census information provided by millions of Americans was used in a government study to profile airline passengers as terrorist risks.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration also obtained for its study the private information of hundreds of thousands of passengers flying Northwest Airlines, an action NASA denied to The Washington Times in September.

Illegally using confidential data while lying to the oversight committee, that’s the way to lead the nation in to space? Clearly I just don’t understand modern space technology development.