Defund NASA

Here’s a good article by Paul Jacob on the merits of defunding NASA, and allowing private enterprise to lead the charge into space.

Americans and scientists and the current space industry must wean themselves from the idea of subsidy — a point I often make, of other industries, in my Common Sense e-letter. No matter how expertly NASA charges corporations for its services, such as satellite placement and repair, the very existence of a government-funded service bureau introduces a corrupting element into the industry.

Private enterprise can bloom in space. But only by getting NASA and government subsidies out.

Update: Ken made an excellent point in the comments. I was reponding, but I’ll respond here.

The free market has a record of innovation, lowering cost, and improving quality, particularly so in the high tech/high science industry. Government can and should piggy back off the private sector.

You would be surprised what private enterprise will fund. For example, say launch costs for putting heavy loads into space are cut to the point of commodity. Then the variable cost of the high-end research is diminished more or less to the research itself. Even that would probably benefit from privatization. Some company out there will want to look into Magnetic Sail Plasma Beam Propulsion. VC funded startups would want to patent it. Skunk works for the big defense companies would be the candidates with the infrastructure and knowledge base to support it. Letting a VC funded startup shoulder the cost for an expensive bleeding edge technology has historically been a very successful model. For that one startup that figures it out, the payoff would be, literally, astronomical. The other 99% of VC funded startups may be complete duds/write-offs. But that payoff is exactly what VC’s are gunning for. Say I am Kleiner Perkins. I would set aside $100 million, find 10 companies showing the most promise in space propulsion and put $10 million into each. If there aren’t any companies, I would incubate them (KPCB has an in-house entrepreneur program iirc) I would then syndicate the companies to where I own about 20% of each company to lessen the risk, and the companies would get more money to work with. So each company would get about $50 million in funding. If even one company does hit it big, that $10 million is going to be worth a lot more than $100 million. What’s high end space propulsion worth? If they had a lock on Magnetic Sail Plasma Beam Propulsion, I would value it in the public markets to the tune of $5 to $10 billion. 20% of $5 billion is $1 billion, for a 10 fold return on the original investment of $100 million. Bingo, science fiction becomes reality, and we have a new propulsion system.

It’s one scenario. But my main point is that government has a lackluster track record for innovation. They tend to play it safe when it comes to being a catalyst for major change. So why not let the profit-driven private sector do it? It may not seem as “noble” as the pure pursuit of science, but it has a knack of getting the job done.

9 thoughts on “Defund NASA”

  1. I don’t mind defunding the manned space program.

    But I strongly disagree with the idea of defunding unmanned research satellites. I’m afraid I don’t see any plausible way such a thing could and would be privately funded.

    Who, exactly, would have been willing to spend the money needed to send the Cassini probe to Saturn? A couple of billion dollars of expense, with a travel time of several years, and no major market for the data collected?

    But the fact that it couldn’t possibly be justified as a commercial investment doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing.

    Who would be willing to pay for this? If it works, it will be the first instrument capable of detecting earth-sized planets around other stars. I really want that to happen. But where’s the market for that data? Make a business case for me for doing this entirely with private investment.

    You can’t.

    Take a look at this page and the future and proposed pages. There are a lot of things there I want to see happen, but I don’t for a minute believe that “private enterprise” will be willing to invest in them.

    There’s a lot more to NASA than the space shuttle.

  2. One of his main points is that all this pure research is NASA’s specialty, but at what price? In a time of high deficits and debt, a moritorium on pure research maybe isn’t such a bad idea.

  3. Yes it is. R&D is something that always pays off in the longrun and quite frankly we are going to need something with a *big* payoff to offset the Social Security Meltdown(tm) that is scheduled to begin in a decade or so. Stephan is quite right when he points out that there is a lot of things we need to do that just won’t be done by people who think only by the business quarter.

    But that’s one of the reasons I would consider defunding the manned exploration program to be a bad idea as well. Humans are more versatile than machines and can do a lot more than even our best SOTA at a much cheaper price. As G. Henry Stine was fond of pointing out, they’re easy to manufacture with the aid of unskilled labor as well.

    – S.P.M.

  4. Maybe we should put NASA in the deep freeze, and re-institute it after private launch infrastructure has cut the cost of launching missions, scientific and otherwise, to a small fraction of its present value.

    The Vikings made it to North America, and never did anything with it. Columbus, supported by Queen Isabella, landed, looked around a little while, and went home. Later, various Europeans came on their own dime looking for gold, and stuck around; later, paying customers came looking for farmland and freedom, and stuck around, and made something unbelievable out of it.

  5. Ken.
    Since the Vikings came on their own dime that would suggest that private expeditions would be ineffectual. And in fairness to Columbus I should probably point out that the Spanish *were* doing things in his lifetime. He did colonize 1 of the isles he’d explored and the settlement in question is still around today. Just about every colony you might wish to name was funded by the government of the day either directly or indirectly.

    Civil engineering projects of a large scale are one of the things that government alone can do. This one is justified by the fact that:

    1. It gives us a signigficant military edge over everyone else (I probably should elaborate on that one later when I’m more awake).

    2. It provides us with access to useful mineral resources.

    3. Through the development of SPS (Solar Power Satellite) systems it can provide us with the energy resources we need to keep our economy on a sound basis.
    – S.P.M.

  6. How about mostly defunding NASA and getting it in the business of using big prize contests to “X-Prize” our way into space, ala the way the Brits solved the Longitude problem. NASA expertise could setup prizes, arbitrate winners, do the cheerleading in the MSM and so on. Much cheaper for the taxpayers and better results.

  7. Two points: It has been against US policy for NASA to sell “satellite placement serves” on a regular basis to the private sector since 1986; and

    The Longitude Prize still domonstrated many of the public-choice problems of taxpayer funding — the judging committee was packed with advocates of one particular solution (not the one which eventually won) who made it very difficult for Harrison to get his prize within his lifetime.

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