Today marks the proposed launch date for the Falcon 9, a new rocket developed by the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation. SpaceX, as it’s more commonly called, was created by PayPal and Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk as a commercialized venture to ferry cargo to the International Space Station. At its heart, SpaceX represents a new wave of privatization in the space sector, a frontier once solely the domain of government entities like NASA.
You won’t hear this often from me, but President Obama was right to cut NASA’s budget in favor of private contractors taking over. Commercializing space is the only way to jump-start humanity’s transition from low Earth orbit to the Moon and Mars. By turning over the more “mundane” tasks of spaceflight (if there are such things) to companies like SpaceX, NASA is free to plan bolder missions, both manned and unmanned.
But privatizing space is a new frontier for the government. The whole purpose of space privatization is to improve efficiency and reliability, and to reallocate resources. How can the government maximize these benefits? Good policy would be a good start. Here are three things the government can do right now to give private industry the best chance to succeed in space:
Recognize off-planet property rights
Some people have argued that private individuals or corporations shouldn’t be able to own territory on the Moon or Mars in the sense that they can on the earth. Their reasons are all over the place, but most rely on the premise that the Moon is a naturally beautiful resource and we shouldn’t sell off something of global heritage to a private company. My response? If you really want to give people the fullest appreciation for the Moon, let it be developed. People appreciate practicality. No industry will ever develop on the Moon, or Mars or wherever until it can be assured the fruits of its labor won’t be confiscated.
Collaborate with private firms
A lot of this is already going on. NASA should continue to share data and advice with private companies, which will benefit both ventures. NASA has considerably more experience than most of these young space tech firms when it comes to launches and orbital technologies. By helping private developers avoid mistakes, NASA gains a more reliable partner, and contractors gain a higher chance for success and profit. Everybody benefits. I call this the “tutor principle.”
Replace every LEO dollar saved with a LEO+ dollar spent
We’ve been stuck in low Earth orbit for decades. NASA’s resources have been drained by missions to resupply the ISS, which, while necessary for the valuable research the Space Station generates, could be done more efficiently by a private corporation. But savings alone will not push mankind’s envelope past 100 miles above the earth. For each dollar the government saves by privatizing LEO servicing, it has another dollar to spend on bolder initiatives. The Orion Project is a great example of a project that deserves more funding and planning because of its vision. The GOP especially should keep this principle in mind when trimming the budget! Space exploration produces technology and jobs in a way that entitlement spending does not, and should receive a higher funding priority as a result. Interest earned by cost-cutting privatization shouldn’t be taken away, but rather re-invested by the agency that created it. Doing the opposite would penalize agencies for being more efficient, which is not a smart move.
It’s not rocket science, folks. Space exploration creates an astronomical number of private sector jobs, and generates huge amounts of new, marketable technology (marketable is also taxable, I might add). That’s why the government should work with private industry to see the space sector grow, and the reach of humanity along with it.