With the propensity in the United States to privatize everything, from ambulances to security, to parks & prisons, it is no wonder that NASA announced its plans last year to privatize space travel as soon as possible.
This week, the dream of commercialized space travel finally became a reality with the launch of SpaceX´s (Space Exploration Technologies) Falcon 9 rocket, making SpaceX the first commercial company in history to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station.
The idea behind the privatization of space travel is to turn NASA into a customer of external private companies that will in turn transform space travel into a type of extraterrestrial FedEx service. This implies that commercial regulations such as fixed prices, contracts and profit margins will now be introduced into the operation of what was always an institution of national pride to millions of Americans (and funded from their own tax dollars at that!). So what is behind this new frenzy of privatization and is it really worth all the hype?
Entrepreneurs in favor of privatization claim that in order for space exploration to progress it is imperative to get it off the government dole. There is, however, no empirical evidence that public investment in space exploration and travel is inferior to private investment. In fact, the United States has led the world in space exploration, second at times only to Russia (who also has a publicly funded space program), on the basis of public funds. The new push for privatization instead is an ideological and cultural shift, currently prevalent in the United States and in many countries around the world, towards the privatization of as many sectors of the economy as possible.
What is really at stake at the moment is the future of space travel. Fifty years ago space exploration was glamorous and exciting, with much of the U.S. population believing that in a matter of decades the universe would be at our fingertips. Today people have realized that this is no longer the case, and as people accept the fact that they won’t be reaching for the stars anytime soon, interest in space exploration has waned exponentially.
In addition, the shuttle program normalized space travel in the eyes of the public making it appear mundane and routine. It was in this context that the Obama administration was forced to put an end to many of the Bush era plans for space travel, such as a second mission to the moon and an eventual trip to Mars. They also found themselves forced to make the decision to retire NASA´s shuttle program.
The push for the privatization of space travel is a feeble attempt by entrepreneurs to capitalize off of a dying industry. SpaceX is just one of a handful of companies that have been vying for a slice of the pie, developing and testing the Falcon series of expendable launch rockets, the first of which was launched on Tuesday.
Despite these new innovations and attempts at making space travel profitable, NASA, a government funded entity, remains the best equipped for discovering new technologies related to space exploration.
Additionally, there are no proven cost benefits to privatizing space travel. The delivery of 40 tons of supplies to the space station by two private companies contracted by NASA, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, cost around 3.5 billion dollars. This is roughly the same price per pound as the shuttle program spent during similar journeys throughout its history.
This clearly demonstrates that privatization is not the answer to NASA´s problems in innovation. Instead, what NASA needs is a clear plan to develop new research and technology if the space program is to become more efficient and make a glorious return to the public spotlight.