Private sector should fund space missions

Freedom New Mexico

A merica’s future in space is entrepreneurial. President Barack Obama partly has recognized that reality in his recent speeches and policy changes on NASA and American space policy.

“I give Obama mixed reviews on his space policy,” said Ed Hudgins, author of “Space: The Free Market Frontier.” There were positive elements, he said, including “canceling the Constellation,” a proposed new mission to the moon. And the president is encouraging “the private sector for low-Earth-orbit missions.”

Hudgins said only the private sector can make prices for a product or service go down as quality goes up, such as with computers, TV sets and the global airline industry. The same is true for making space flights more common for commercial or tourist missions. He pointed to such ongoing private space efforts as those by Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, Elon Musk’s SpaceX in Hawthorne and Robert Bigelow’s Bigelow Aerospace.

On the negative side is Obama’s vision for NASA, which is struggling for new missions as the Space Shuttle program is retired this year. He talked about a mission to Mars occurring in his lifetime. “I expect to be around to see it,” the president said in an April 15 speech at Cape Canaveral, Fla. Given that the president is 48 and could live another 40 years or so, that’s not all that ambitious. He also called for landing an astronaut on an asteroid within 15 years.

Those goals contrast with President John F. Kennedy’s proclamation before Congress on May 25, 1961, that America would land a man “by the end of this decade.” That call was fulfilled on time, eight years later. Granted, Mars and asteroid missions would be much more difficult. But more important is that the nature of space exploration has changed greatly since 1961, with private enterprises shooting faster toward the stars.

Even with the cancellation of NASA funding for the Constellation project, Hudgins said, NASA’s space proposals “shape up to be more NASA boondoggles. They’re not making us a space-faring civilization. All this does is keep NASA employees at work. To what end?” According to a November 2007 NASA estimate, the Mars mission alone could cost as much as $450 billion. And that’s before factoring in the usual government cost overruns.

Hudgins said missions to asteroids and Mars would be much cheaper once the private sector built up a strong technological infrastructure for space exploration.

If the federal government really wanted to help, he said, it should take up the proposal by former Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Bob Walker to give a 25-year tax exemption to any company that maintained a base on the moon for 365 consecutive days. This reward would appeal to such large, high-tech companies as GE, Microsoft, Apple and Intel.

There would be no cost to taxpayers; and no government bureaucracy involved. “The tax break wouldn’t come into effect until the moon base was constructed,” Hudgins explained. “But think of all the revenue paid by the private infrastructure” that built the moon base.

We encourage New Mexico’s and Texas’ congressional delegation to look critically at the president’s impractical and expensive space boondoggles, especially at a time when the country is already $12.7 trillion in debt. But they should embrace Obama’s push toward privatization — then push it further.