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Borde-nough: Privatizing the final frontier

Published: April 23, 2010
Section: Opinions


On April 15, President Barack Obama traveled to Kennedy Space Center in Florida to tell National Aeronautics and Space Administration employees to begin looking for private sector jobs.  He didn’t put it quite that way, but his Republican-style plans for NASA privatization carried that meaning.

The president called for adding $6 billion to the NASA budget over the next five years for, as Obama put it, “buying the services of space transportation” from private firms.  The space shuttles will fly their last missions later this year.  Obama would pay private companies to send astronauts into low-earth orbit—work that has been a central NASA function.

This proposal follows Obama’s February announcement of a plan to end the Constellation program.  That program, begun under George W. Bush, aims to produce new vehicles to replace the shuttles and to create a Moon base in the 2020s.  Constellation never received adequate funding.  It is behind schedule.

The shuttles’ retirement leaves NASA without vehicles to launch astronauts into low-earth orbit until Constellation produces one.  Obama would end Constellation, and delay NASA’s in-house vehicle development by changing the agency’s goal to that of reaching Mars in the 2030s.  That would leave private contractors’ vehicles as the only means available (save for hiring space on foreign missions) for NASA to send up astronauts.

That would please a few well-connected, well-heeled people like Elon Musk, who joined Obama in Florida on April 15.  Musk is the CEO and founder of SpaceX, which already participates in a small Bush-era NASA privatization scheme.  After making a fortune by selling his stock in Internet start-up companies, Musk put away his keyboard and reached for the government’s udders.  He is also CEO of Tesla Motors, which induces rich people to buy its super-expensive electric vehicles by lobbying federal and state governments to hand them tax incentives.

SpaceX applies the milk-it principle to the space program.   SpaceX already has its snout in the NASA trough.  If Musk’s bipartisan political contributions exceeding $220,000 since the 2004 election cycle had anything to say about it, the company would have received government largess no matter who held power.  SpaceX and six other contractors already have their hands in NASA’s pocket under various existing spaceflight privatization measures.  Obama’s plan will likely make them NASA’s only manned spaceflight options.

Reliance on a small and potentially oligopolistic clutch of firms may not mean “more affordable” space missions, as Obama claimed.  The contractors are so few and politically influential, and the barriers to entry in the business are so high, that costs may rise.

Consider the privatization scheme in which SpaceX and another company participate.  A less-noticed item in Obama’s budget asks for $312 million in the next fiscal year for, as NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told a Congressional subcommittee on March 23, “incentivizing NASA’s current commercial cargo program … to expedite the pace of development … and improve program robustness.”  That’s a charitable way to describe a handout to two well-placed companies seeking more cash to do what that they had already contracted to do.  How much more will they extract once they are NASA’s only options?

Obama’s plan adds jobs in Florida (a swing state in presidential elections) while allowing net job losses in Republican-leaning states.  That may help Obama in the short-term, but hurt future NASA budgets.  And his employment projections are questionable.  They are based on a study paid for by the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a trade group comprising SpaceX and other companies wanting a turn at the federal teat.

Outsourcing its essential functions would strip NASA of talent.  Companies would lure away NASA-trained employees with higher, private-sector pay.  NASA would become unable to function  independently.  Its employees would lose morale.

Without other high-profile NASA programs, the companies’ poor performance will become apparent.  Today, Musk and his ilk can quietly suck up an extra $312 million.  When they are at the center of attention, the public won’t tolerate such behavior.

Putting off NASA’s big goals and implementing privatization will make it a conduit for diverting public money to politically connected investors.  Its budgets will become harder to justify.

That would be tragic.  Apart from its rare capabilities, what makes NASA special are its noble aims.  Few people can go home at night justified in the belief that their employer operates for the benefit of all mankind.  NASA employees can.  That explains why idealistic people with a scientific bent still aspire to work for NASA, and why so many tax-averse Americans have proudly supported the agency for more than 50 years.  If the administration places the interest of private companies’ shareholders between NASA and the shining cause of humanity, the agency will go into eclipse.