The first privately funded space mission to the International Space Station is scheduled to occur at the end of this month. Space X and its Dragon Capsule will be taking a historic step and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Now that the Space Shuttle program is history, NASA and the U.S. have to buy tickets into space from Russia, but if all goes well, Space X, based out of California, will soon provide an all-American alternative.
With private industries poised to take over large portions of U.S. advancement in space, it begs the question of whether monumental tasks, such as space exploration, should be left to private industries to develop. Are private industries even capable of tackling space development safely and efficiently without government oversight and funding? In short, the answer is yes, but such a claim needs to be backed in evidence. Obviously we cannot point to past examples of private industries developing space, however, we can look at historical events that offer a similar situation.
The University of Washington and Emory University completed a study that compared public and private expeditions to the North Pole between 1818 and 1909. Arctic exploration and development at that time and space exploration and development today share many features, including inhospitable conditions that tested our most advanced technologies and countless unknown and unforeseeable dangers. Thanks to the well documented nature of ship logs, the researchers were able to account for many variables such as crew size, vessel tonnage, past experience of captains, number of deaths on the expedition, and even how many cases of scurvy occurred on the expedition. I encourage anyone who is interested in the history of exploration to read the study, linked above, as it is the most interesting and content rich research I have ever read.
Here is a short conclusion of their findings from the study:
“Most major Arctic discoveries were made by private expeditions. Most tragedies were publicly funded. Public expeditions were better funded than their private counterparts yet lost more ships, experienced poorer crew health, and had more men die. Public expeditions’ poor performance is not attributable to differences in objectives, available technologies, or country of origin. Rather, it reflects a tendency toward poor leadership structures, slow adaptation to new information, and perverse incentives.”
Now back to the question of whether or not private industries can tackle space exploration and development. According to the findings of this study, not only would the private sector be capable, but it would do even better than publicly funded competitors. One of the inherent problems with publicly funded expeditions, the study claims, is that they are slow to adapt to new information. That is undoubtedly still true today and can easily be illustrated by the fact that we used the same shuttles for 30 years and then instead of improving them, scrapped the program. The space shuttle program started in 1981. Can you remember what the cutting edge technology was back then? I can’t, I wasn’t even born yet, but to provide some context, 1981 was the year that MS-DOS 1.0, a 16 bit operating system, came out.
The study also cites perverse incentives as an inherent problem with publicly funded expeditions. These are still around as well. Publically funded expeditions have a set budget that pays people on the team the same amount regardless of the outcome of the expedition. Getting paid the same of doing a sub-par job is an example of a perverse incentive. Private competitors are positioned to make larger profits if the expedition goes well and develops or discovers something useful. This means better performance is met with greater gains. That’s how incentives are suppose to work.
Regardless of how much faith people have in private space development, it will inevitably be a large component of the future. Along with Space X, private companies around the world are preparing to make the leap into space. A brand new company named Planetary Resources plans to capitalize on the abundance of natural resources in space and has accumulated a group of wealthy and famous investors including James Cameron. The private sector is set to provide a long needed boost to human space exploration. We should welcome it with open arms and excitement for what they will discover.