Previewing the Budget: Commercialized Space Travel?

Unsurprising confession: a couple summers during high school, I went to “nerd camps.” One summer, while calculating the speed of light using Penn (we were only off by one order of magnitude!), a friend and I asked a professor why he thought space exploration hadn’t, ahem, “taken off.” His answer was simple: a failure to commercialize. The U.S. government keeps such a tight leash on space travel, he explained, that it’s impossible to see any development other than through preciously limited federal dollars. Sure, we said, but won’t commercializing space, among a parade of other horribles, deprive the space program of its patriotic elegance? “No,” he said. “I just want progress. I don’t care if the damn rockets have #%&ing slogans on them!”

Neither do I — and apparently, neither does President Obama:

The controversial proposal, expected to be included in the Obama administration’s next budget, would open a new chapter in the U.S. space program. The goal is to set up a multiyear, multi-billion-dollar initiative allowing private firms, including some start-ups, to compete to build and operate spacecraft capable of ferrying U.S. astronauts into orbit—and eventually deeper into the solar system.

They’re clearly right. Setting aside alarmism about safety and schlocky corporatism, America has always prospered from a balance of entrepreneurial ingenuity and responsible regulation. Although I must stress the latter point, it’s this strength that powered the 1990s tech boom, and the industrial revolution that knit the country together in a matter of decades. Both created significant fallout, it’s true, including problems that we’re still in the process of solving. But the societal benefits of industrialization and connectivity have far outweighed even the most serious detriments. Imagine if the internet had remained a military project, or Fulton’s steam engine classified. Regulating space travel is a challenge to which we ought to rise, rather than waiting for the federal government to build the requisite money and momentum to make it happen. If Obama does indeed make a private/public space partnership a part of next year’s budget, think of the added space presence and promise of technology as a step towards Starfleet, even if it’s a step away from the Federation.

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3 comments

  1. I have to say that–beyond the inherent fact that anything IN SPAAAAAACE is cooler–I see very limited opportunity for any commercial ventures in space beyond satellites (which we already do) and space tourism. There might be some potential for low-g manufacturing, but I haven’t been convinced that the benefits will outweigh the costs.

    We also really, REALLY need to be careful about keeping the level of space junk down (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_junk). That’s not anywhere near a solved problem yet.

    1. And by costs, I mean that it takes a lot of time and effort to get from one place to another across the massive void that is SPAAAAACE, let alone the difficulty of keeping some meatbags alive if anything is to be manned.

      It would be nice if we could get a space elevator going, and it would be nice if we had Mr. Fusion reactors in all our DeLoreans. I’m not seeing either happen anytime soon.

  2. Where would airplane travel be today if it was completely government owned and operated?

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