Brace yourself for the "Beam me up" references, because William Shatner is headed back into space. Shatner has thrown down $200,000 to save a place on a private sector suborbital passenger service, which is scheduled to begin in a few years.
But is Shatner's Q-rating high enough for the presidential candidates to take note and throw a bone to those who care about space policy?
Sure very few voters really care about space policy, but some pundits say that in the final days of tight races candidates often make overtures to democracy's niche markets. They point to Kerry's recent urge to shoot a goose (paying attention sportsmen?) as the kind of campaign non sequitur that could show up again as candidates look to bag a few extra votes here and there.
Plus, space policy could be a key long-term component of what's typically at the top of voters' domestic worry list—jobs. It's always tricky to predict what sort of job creation figures a given innovation will yield, but if it turns out to be at all analogous to the aviation industry, the space industry gushes with job growth potential.
Over 100,000 Americans get paid to fly planes, but most of those with aviation-related jobs are not pilots, they're engineers, mechanics, airport managers, aviation educators, crew schedulers, and so on. Just one century after the Wright Brothers, the aviation industry employs 2.2 million American civilians.
And while there's much reason to be optimistic about the technology behind the private space industry, there's reason to be pessimistic about the process that controls it. In many ways, the top-down approach that governs space exploration is the opposite of the bottom-up private experimentation which invigorated aviation.
Unlike manned space exploration, aviation did not take off with a presidential declaration. It began with a great burst of decentralized experimentation, in which inventor's ambitions were stoked by more than 100 private incentive prizes. When Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic alone and without stopping, he collected a privately funded purse, the $25,000 Orteig prize.
This environment produced all sorts of rickety contraptions, but the good ideas separated themselves from the pack, and the march of progress was brisk. Imagine that only 24 years separated Lindbergh's trans-Atlantic trip from the Wright Brothers' herky-jerky jaunt into history.
Still, many find it difficult to trust small groups of private people to continue such progress into space. Leaving the ground is one thing, they say, but leaving Earth's atmosphere requires the kind of might only government can muster.
Indeed, government has always dominated manned space exploration, and most people never thought to question the status quo. After all, we see the many billions of dollars that pour into NASA and assume that no private venture could drum up such funding. And what private venture would have the necessary patience? The space shuttle was intended to launch as often as every week, but decades later this goal still seems unrealistic.
Even so, it took a small team only three years and $25 million to send a private astronaut into space twice within one week. Besides fulfilling their own curiosity, the team members behind SpaceShipOne had the extra incentive of the $10 million Ansari X-Prize, offered by a private foundation.
Regardless of the specific goal, small groups of private innovators have made a habit of debunking conventional wisdom, and achieving what people previously thought could only be achieved with centralized control. The same kind of environment that fostered Lindbergh's triumph and the success of SpaceShipOne's designer Burt Rutan led to great leaps of progress in everything from food production to auto ownership. Time and again we relearn the same lesson: innovationï¿½s best fuel is freedom, not government funding.
Some inside NASA point out that SpaceShipOne's team enjoys unfair advantages. If NASA tried to behave like a private entrepreneur, it would get slammed with probes and congressional hearings for circumventing the procurement process, for not spreading the work around geographically, and so on. Certainly, the problem isn't the people who comprise NASA, it's the process that saps their imagination, and forces them to behave like by-the-book bureaucrats. And so NASA does not just absorb money from the private sector, it also absorbs staffers whose talent would take the American space industry farther if it were allowed to slip out from under the weight of bureaucracy.
Thirty-five years after Armstrong's moon walk, mankind's subsequent giant leaps have slowed. The recently-released Adridge Report, the product of a presidential commission on space policy, notes that "today an independent space industry does not really exist."
It's time candidates paid attention to what makes innovation blossom, for while we now celebrate the birth of private space exploration, government is poised for another plunge into the dark. If we are to take him at his word, a Bush victory would mean returning to the moon, and eventually even a mission to Mars. There's a war of figures about how much the plan would actually cost—some claim that estimates of $500 million to $1 trillion grossly overstate the actual price.
But more tragic than the money spent could be the opportunities missed. If such lofty missions are pursued in the same top-down manner, who knows if exploration will be guided by what is most scientifically useful or what is politically expedient. Is going to Mars the most important thing we can do, or is Bush merely angling for ink in future history textbooks?
And just as most of us don't fly to Hawaii for a geology lesson, space exploration offers more than a growing tally of scientific achievements. It offers a new chance to expose more people to new kinds of fun and adventure. Centralized government missions would not be on the lookout for ways to allow the common man to enjoy space, and this means passing up all sorts of commercial applications and the jobs they would require.
NASA has long turned up its nose at space enthusiasts like Dennis Tito and boy-bander Lance Bass who were willing to fork over tens of millions of dollars to tag along on a shuttle trip into space. But already the private sector has dropped the price of space travel to $200,000 and found a new market. Roughly 7000 people have joined William Shatner on the waiting list, and Burt Rutan envisions a day when such trips cost about as much as a luxury cruise, meaning that the market will continue to expand.
And would a Kerry presidency be friendly to expanded private space exploration? We don't know for sure. Space policy analyst Mark Whittington argues that Kerry has no space policy, and while it's true his campaign has had little to say on the matter, buried deep within a mountain of plans and promises, the Kerry camp offers evidence that it noticed the race for the X-Prize:
- [Prizes] allow the government to set a goal, while allowing researchers and entrepreneurs to pursue different strategies for reaching that goal. The private sector's X Prize illustrates the power of this approach.
The Aldridge Report dresses the prize concept with more specifics, suggesting the government could offer as much as $1 billion "to the first organization to place humans on the Moon and sustain them for a fixed period."
Indeed, if government cannot bring itself to leave space, it should at least follow the private sector model: spell-out the mission, offer a nice reward for its completion, and kick back until someone collects the dough.
Meanwhile, the private sector is already dangling new carrots. The X Prize Foundation has plans for at least six more competitions, including prizes for the highest altitude and most passengers carried. And the day after SpaceShipOne made its claim on the original X Prize by reaching a suborbital altitude of 62 miles, hotel magnate Robert Bigelow offered $50 million to the first private craft that can go four times higher and reach orbit.
Chances are the most lucrative prizes won't be announced in advance, but will be offered by investors eager to get in on a project that shows early promise. British billionaire Richard Branson has already joined with the team behind SpaceShipOne and committed over $100 million to create his Virgin Galactic passenger service. Although it's too early to tell what the future of private space travel will bring, aviation's evolution suggests that, with the right political climate, there will be plenty of private investors.
If government wrested control of aviation at its birth, who knows how the industry would have stalled. Perhaps we'd be as unmoved as we are about space policy, simply because there would be no way for us to know what we're missing.
Likewise, if space exploration remains the domain of government, we won't know what we're passing up. Will entrepreneurs offer same-day parcel delivery, super fast transcontinental shuttles, lunar honeymoon packages?
Just as the Wright brothers could not anticipate airport managers or crew schedulers, we cannot know what kind of space-related jobs will someday become commonplace. And since voters are always anxious about job creation, space policy might not be so far removed from their ground-level worries, after all. At the very least, that makes it worthy of a sound bite or two on the campaign trail.
Ted Balaker is the Jacob's Fellow at Reason Foundation.