I remember the night of the first moon landing well. I was a little boy and I remember the flickering black and white images coming back to Earth. I couldn’t see much, but I was excited that we had reached the moon. It wasn’t quite “Star Trek,” but I was convinced we’d all be traveling in space pretty soon.
After the great achievement of reaching the moon, not much else happened. Oh, there were a few more moon shots — including the disaster of Apollo 13 — but the excitement was gone. There wasn’t a real goal anymore, at least not one that could be articulated and that was feasible. NASA hemmed and hawed about its value as politicians kept changing their minds about the agency’s mission. The Apollo program was canceled in favor of the space shuttle, which was conceived as a lower-cost craft by virtue of its being reusable. The “low cost” part didn’t work out so well.
Decades later, the space shuttle program has been shut down. Of the five fully-functional shuttles built, two were destroyed in flight, taking 14 crew members with them. As the shuttle Discovery was flown from Cape Canaveral to Washington this week for delivery to the National Air and Space Museum, there’s been a lot of hang-wringing among space enthusiasts about the end of the program. As much as space exploration excites me, though, I have to say good riddance.
Space launches are exciting. The idea of humans actually going into space and finding ways to expand the places where we can live is even more exciting. Since I’m not convinced we can all get along, the notion of finding different planets where we can all try our own things is probably the best chance the human race has. It’s an old science fiction idea and it’s one that especially appeals to those of us who long for the chance to establish a different sort of society than what the majority want here.
But as much as I’m eager for humans to explore space and find ways to live on other planets one day, I have to say that NASA isn’t the way to get it done. It’s become a political boondoggle that isn’t sure what it’s doing or why. It’s full of really bright people and it’s used a tremendous among of money, but I suspect we would have had more to show for it if space were left to private companies.
We have a number of private companies competing to launch satellites and even put up orbiting laboratories and more. (Here’s a list of some of the companies and their projects, although the list is out of date.) As long as NASA was around to suck up a huge percentage of the money that might be directed toward space, those companies were at a disadvantage. Now, anyone who has an interest in space — for exploration, research, tourism, mining or colonization — has a great incentive to support one of these companies or start his own. (That’s the first launch of SpaceX‘s Falcon 9 rocket.)
I have a tremendous amount of respect for much of the work that NASA has done, particularly in the early days. But it’s time for the agency to get out of the way and let competing private interests take over the skies. The shuttle program was an expensive (more than $200 billion) boondoggle, in terms of what it accomplished. Competing private companies can accomplish much more with a lot less money.
Best of all, the money they spend will be money that’s invested voluntarily, not money that’s coercively taken from those who don’t choose to pay.
So goodbye to Discovery and Atlantis and Endeavor. We honor you, Challenger and Columbia. But we’re excited about what might come about when the free market has the time to develop in space. We may not live in space before my lifetime is through, but we will some day, as long as the world doesn’t end first. When it happens, it will be because private interests take us there.
Note: As I was researching this, I found that Reason magazine had an issue geared toward the space program in February. If you’re interested, the articles are online now.