The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Libertarians In Space

Posted on | August 30, 2011 | 24 Comments

by Smitty

Yesterday I wrote a post generally lamenting the fact that the U.S. space program is languishing. That we’ve traded the gosh-wow inspiration of boldly going where no human has gone before in for standing in socialist lines, where everyone has gone before, consuming a significant chunk of their lives.

And I mentioned that I was glad not to be libertarian on this topic, which was deemed a careless friendly-fire incident on Twitter by @GaltsGirl. I asked that she use this as a teachable moment, and she did:

You see, a purely libertarian viewpoint on the space program would be relatively straightforward: Turn the space program into a REAL race for the top and let it be funded by private businesses. Let the funds come from investors and the jobs go to the massive range of employees possessing the hugely encompassing range of skills needed to launch a viable (and profitable) program of exploration into space. National security? Well, currently the federal government has managed to launch a forty year long , ghastly expensive serious of failures to produce. Now, there is no doubt that space exploration is a worthy expenditure. I will even concede that there are likely legitimate national defense concerns with our ability to position ourselves as the forerunner in space exploration and technology development. Which begs just one last question from me: Since when is the federal government the leader in ANY race to efficient, productive, and profitable expansion of anything, except itself?

Let me help you on a couple of points:

  • let it be funded by private businesses Space ain’t no simple bottling plant or restaurant. The business risks are staggering. Launching your project is essentially blowing it up on a pad, in a directed sort of way, such that the debris gets flung along a useful trajectory. Oh, and, the Outer Space Treaty still holds countries absolutely liable for any oops:

    “Each State Party to the Treaty that launches or procures the launching of an object into outer space … and each State Party from whose territory or facility an object is launched, is internationally liable for damage to another State Party to the Treaty or to its natural or juridical persons by such object or its component parts on the Earth, in air space or in outer space.”

    Say Warren Buffet were to fund a launch vehicle, and launched it out of Cape Canaveral. It went wild, and killed a bunch of Aboriginese nomads in Zambiniland. The U.S. government is liable (!), from back in the days of the Cold War, when anything going sub-orbital was a kiss from Dr. Strangelove.

  • jobs go to the massive range of employees possessing the hugely encompassing range of skills needed to launch a viable ( and profitable) program of exploration into space The business models are really tough. You’ll note, in addition to the legal point above, that the private space outfits are still in their infancy. Putting a Saturn V booster on a pad is all about deep pockets. Why do politicians want to subsidize space when they can by more votes with ethanol subsidies? My point here is that the details are both devlish and expensive.
  • Since when is the federal government the leader in ANY race to efficient, productive, and profitable expansion of anything, except itself? Good question. I’m confident answering that it never will be. But keep in mind that the two disasters in the Space Shuttle program, for which you can cite specific problems and blame bureaucrats if you like, also point to the fact that Mother Earth is a jealous muthuh, forcing her children to do incredibly dangerous things to escape the nest. Outside the nest of Earth is an environment as hostile to life as the modern university is to independent thinking.

Keeping this brief, I predict the rise of private enterprise in space will be slow for reasons of cost, difficulty and politics.

Our current Socialist trajectory, uncorrected, means that we will waste our means on useless vote-buying schemes, instead of inspirational exploration.

Private enterprise will be slow in finding ways to get business models into orbit, and, even when ready to do so, will bump into legitimate international treaty-level objections. If Gibson can’t make a guitar without a body cavity search by Holder, what hope does Armadillo Aerospace have?

Does this constitute a rationale for the public to subsidize large-scale space projects to get things moving further? Well, as un-libertarian as it sounds, maybe so.


24 Responses to “Libertarians In Space”

  1. Julie
    August 30th, 2011 @ 1:00 pm

    I’m by no means an expert but it seems to me that we’ve signed all sorts of treaties that make it difficult or impossible for private ventures into space.    The complexity and expense of getting there really isn’t insurmountable for a private company, though that used to be the accepted wisdom: only a government could possibly have the resources.  

    But I still think that the government should be doing it.   Not exclusively!   It doesn’t even make sense to think that we’d gain anything at all by narrowing access.  But I think that the government should be pushing expansion into space, at least making those right noises even if the efforts are primarily private, and making sure laws promote rather than restrict private companies getting to space, and making all the right noises because of what you said, Smitty.

    “…we’ve traded the gosh-wow inspiration of boldly going where no
    human has gone before in for standing in socialist lines, where everyone
    has gone before.., ”

    We make ourselves small on purpose and decide to call it a virtue.

    What was that Heinlein quote about “bad luck?”

  2. ThePaganTemple
    August 30th, 2011 @ 1:43 pm

    Space is a national security matter, its a perfectly legitimate function of government.

  3. DaveO
    August 30th, 2011 @ 1:56 pm

    There are enough super-billionaires out there to effectively conquer space, and keep the masses from it, parallelling our own history 1607-1620.

  4. ThePaganTemple
    August 30th, 2011 @ 2:55 pm

    Damn those billionaires. Who do they think they are denying me my constitutional right of space travel? I demand they let me go too, the elitist pricks.

  5. Garym
    August 30th, 2011 @ 3:00 pm

    A private company needs to make the venture profitable to be able to pay and incourage the best and the brightest to stay with the company. The company would have to be regulated to high heaven to keep its projects in our national interest ie. keeping said company from launching spy satelites for our enemies.
    One or two major accidents can prove costly and break a private company, scaring away any other company that might want to compete in a space program.
    Nasa, for all its faults, has been inspiring and innovative. It just needs the right leadership and goals. I don’t think it can ever be profitable.

  6. Bob Belvedere
    August 30th, 2011 @ 3:05 pm

    I would be in favor of sending as many Libertarians as is possible out into space, so put me down for 500 bucks.

  7. mojo
    August 30th, 2011 @ 4:11 pm

    Pop a small probe into L5 and claim the orbital parameters as “private property”…

  8. Danby
    August 30th, 2011 @ 4:35 pm

    Seems to me you are confusing the phrase “Space Program” with the much more specific, and much more questionable “Government-Operated Space Program.” For an historical example of how the government can encourage a new technology without running it, and ruining it, look to the early years of flight. Instead of a huge federal agency tasked with developing manned aeronautics, the government got out of the way and let the private sector both take the risks and claim the rewards of inovation.

    The Post office was quite interested in flight, as it promised a reliable way to move the mail around the country faster. Rather than launching a 10-year, multi-million dollar program to design and build a post-office plane, it offered a carrier contract (that is to say, cash money) to anybody who could move the mail faster.

    The Army and Navy were very interested in aeroplanes for reconnaissance. Rather than tying up government funds in a huge bureaucracy  to design and build an aircraft, they encouraged the private sector by offering to buy aircraft that could meet a specific standard of range, altitude, speed and reliability.

    We have been doing space flight for 65 years, since the launch of the first V-2 rocket.  In 65 years of private development of aircraft, we went from the Wright Flyer to the P-52 Mustang and the B-47 jet-powered bomber. In 65 years of government development of spacecraft, we have  had essentially 2 different design approaches. Atlas, Jupiter, Saturn and the Russian rockets are all just larger V-2-styled designs. The Space Shuttle was a typical government project, bloated, hideously expensive, ineffective, inefficient and, frankly, boring.

    If you want, not a Space Program, but a Space Industry, where spaceflight is routine and more than a couple of people in a given year go to space, you have to get it out of the hands of bureaucrats and into the hands of private enterprise. Just as bad money drives out good, and bad employees drive out good employees, the NASA space program has driven out an innovative, risk taking and profitable space program.

  9. Anonymous
    August 30th, 2011 @ 5:34 pm

    I hear Richard Branson will get you into orbit for a mere quarter-million. Or is that the Kazakhs?

  10. Anonymous
    August 30th, 2011 @ 5:35 pm

    Oi, mush. >:(

  11. Adjoran
    August 30th, 2011 @ 6:10 pm

    Love the idea, but most Libertarians are pretty far out there already . . .

  12. Adjoran
    August 30th, 2011 @ 6:29 pm

    There are two kinds of “Libertarian” concepts.  The first are those which are just recycled conservative or capitalist ideas which have been “rediscovered” or repackaged by LP-ers.  These are the ideas which usually make some sense at least.

    Then there are the pure “Libertarian” concepts like no role for the federal government in internet crime, abolishing the age of contract, etc., which are generally, in the technical sense, “Looney Tunes.”  They often sound reasonable, but a little thought exposes the flaws.

    For instance, private space travel.  Now there will be markets for certain narrowly defined experiments, satellite delivery, and even travel into orbit as tourism, and private companies can certainly develop and handle these things under the proper regulation.

    But there’s never a “market” for space exploration and experimentation without a commercial payoff.  While it is true the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs gave us spin-off technologies which no one suspected would become common on the ground, these were unplanned advances in pursuit of research and technical goals.  None of them were foreseeable; no private company would invest the money to develop, say, the technology to build a Moon base or travel to Mars on just the speculation that marketable ideas would result as a byproduct.

    Once again, as with the insanity of Libertarian foreign policy, it is only necessary to imagine their nonsense being the policy 60 years ago.  We would never have got a space program off the ground.

  13. Anonymous
    August 30th, 2011 @ 6:45 pm

    National security? Well, currently the federal government has managed to launch a forty year long , ghastly expensive serious of failures to produce.

    Well, the national security side of the space program has given us GPS, (some) weather satellites, several reliable boosters, and the spy satellite program. While there have been some failures and missteps along the way, it’s been pretty successful by all accounts.

  14. Anonymous
    August 30th, 2011 @ 6:49 pm

    He plans on doing a sub-orbital flight for the $250k. You get a few minutes of micro-gravity.

    Orbital seats on Soyuz for a week at ISS went for $30 million or so when the last one was sold. IIRC, they now are charging NASA $40 million/seat.

  15. Anonymous
    August 30th, 2011 @ 6:55 pm

    Rather than launching a 10-year, multi-million dollar program to design and build a post-office plane, it offered a carrier contract (that is to say, cash money) to anybody who could move the mail faster.

    This gets brought up quite a bit. However, the reason the post office could succeed at their scheme was that the US Army had just dumped a large number of airplanes onto the market at salvage prices in the aftermath of WW I. So, the USPS was free-riding off the R&D and production that went into military aeroplane development.

    That said, NASA is doing the commercial cargo and crew contracts for ISS, where they have given seed money to some companies to build and fly to and from ISS. The regular flow of cash will come when they do deliver cargo.

  16. Anonymous
    August 30th, 2011 @ 7:19 pm

    So, if NASA has no capability and the Russkis won’t service the ISS, if SpaceX gets there and claims it, is it salvage?

     “listen:there’s a hell of a good universe next door; let’s go” — e.e.. Cummings. 

  17. Danby
    August 30th, 2011 @ 7:42 pm

    And this is precisely the right way to do it. It’s one of the few things the Bushies got exactly right. If NASA wants to put a satellite in orbit, or deliver oxygen to the ISS or send a 300kg projectile into an asteroid, it should find someone else with the capability of doing so and pay them. It allows really innovative thinkers to do what they do best, innovate, without having to reverse course in a gov’t agency with 10k employees and a $50B budget.

    Oh, and the R&D that went into WWI US military airplane development was almost entirely private funds raised and invested by the likes of William Boeing and Glenn Curtiss. Granted much of it would not have happened without the government assurance of a ready market, but then, I’m not a Libertarian, so I don’t believe there is no role for the government here. I just think the centralized, politicized, top-down NASA approach has been wrong-headed from the beginning and we would have been served better with an approach much like the one that is coming into place.

  18. AngelaTC
    August 30th, 2011 @ 10:28 pm

    I really don’t’ think I care if government does it or not.  There’s absolutely no basis to assume they do it better, or cheaper, than business does though.   

     You’re jumping to a might big conclusion in assuming that the risk is too big for business to take. I used to work on Wall Street, and the rally cry there was, “High risk, high reward.”  

    Paypal founder Elon Musk left behind a private space travel business when Obama offered him big subsidies to create electric cars.   So while you say “business wouldn’t do it!” there’s plenty of evidence that business would indeed do it, if they were only allowed to.  

    And if business would’t do it…well, that must mean it is a bad investment . Now that’s something our government certainly excels at.

  19. AngelaTC
    August 30th, 2011 @ 10:34 pm

    It’s always pretty easy to argue what didn’t happen.  However , history shows again and again the less government and more private spending provides the best outcome for society.  

    You can say that business would have never gone to the moon, but I think it’s pretty clear they would have, especially if they were guaranteed the rights to do something with the moon.   Mine it, sell ads on it, arrange trips to it….all those things would have happened, and happened less expensively, if we hadn’t granted government a monopoly on space exploration. 

    NASA is the most expensive warm fuzzy in history.

  20. AngelaTC
    August 30th, 2011 @ 10:35 pm

    But the argument always remains would business have done it cheaper?  There’s no reason to think they wouldn’t.

  21. AngelaTC
    August 30th, 2011 @ 10:37 pm

    And by the way Smitty, I have one question:  where we will get the money?    You do realize we can’t pay our own bills any more, right?

  22. Julie
    August 30th, 2011 @ 11:29 pm

    Yes, why not?

    This is one of my “things” I’m prone to rant over.   Some dudes sitting around a table down here on earth decided who can own (or not own) what is out there in space.   Frankly, I don’t think they’ve got the authority to deny “squatters” be it  on the Moon or Mars or at L5.    It’s all very dog-in-the-manger, don’t you think?    If someone (or “we”) don’t want someone else making a claim up there then occupation ought to be the minimum requirement for a counter-claim.

  23. Julie
    August 30th, 2011 @ 11:47 pm

    There actually is a “market” for non-commercial investment and expenditures in libertarian philosophical terms.

    It’s called charity.

    In one sense NASA is essentially a charity as it’s not expected to turn a profit.    The nation/society/people have decided that it’s worthwhile to fund this non-profit because we believe that space exploration and human advancement is important enough to plunder our neighbors.    If people really do think it’s important will they really not financially support space exploration voluntarily as a true charity?

    Sell shares.    The chance of getting something back from it may be small, but it makes donations somewhat lottery-like, and humans are completely irrational about the lottery.   There is no reason at all to think that people wouldn’t do that even if they had near certainty they’d make nothing back on their investment beyond a certificate to frame and show the grandkids.

  24. Anonymous
    August 31st, 2011 @ 7:47 am