Into Space! Privately

President Bush has proposed the U.S. set up a permanent base on the moon, and start making plans for a manned mission to Mars in a decade.

One’s first reaction — certainly mine — is that it’s way past time for humanity to get off the insignificant little rock called Earth, and spread out. I love the idea of space colonization. And the sooner the better.

But, regrettably, the proposition isn’t that simple. For one, with the U.S. government running reported deficits in the $500 billion range, it can’t afford it. It’s insane to borrow even more money to finance something you can’t afford, and arguably don’t need, no matter how desirable it may be. Since this administration is cutting through money like a gambler on tilt, though, a few hundred billion more is now like a rounding error.

A bigger objection, in my view, is that it’s a government project. That means it boils down to a welfare scheme for NASA, which has devolved into a bloated bureaucracy — a government agency that builds rockets about as cost-benefit efficiently as the Post Office delivers the mail. And, inevitably, the project will be part of the military budget in disguise.

What do I suggest? First, there’s nothing the government can do that entrepreneurs can’t do at one-tenth the cost, and 10 times the speed. Space exploration should be, and could be, entirely a private effort.

If it was, my guess is that both Luna and Mars would be colonized by actual colonists, not military men anxious to rotate back to Earth. The costs of having to plan for a return voyage are simply immense, and greatly increase the risks of traveling. Colonists would plan on a one-way journey, and could be supplied at low cost until they could use local resources to establish themselves. Doing it the way we now do makes about as much sense as it would to have continued sending out probes, instead of colonists, after Columbus discovered America.

The only sensible way to conquer space is to populate the planets with men and women who are planning to stay there, and engage in profitable economic activity when they do. The way Bush is proposing to conduct the space program is an extremely expensive dead end. Just another immensely expensive government boondoggle.

February 24, 2004