Hurray for Burt Rutan and Paul Allen: Now It's Time to Deep-Six NASA!!!

by Jim Grichar (aka Exx-Gman) by Jim Grichar

Burt Rutan and Paul Allen's SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X-prize on Monday, October 4, 2004. The prize, inspired by the $25,000 Orteig award given to Charles Lindbergh for the first non-stop transatlantic flight in 1927, was given by Peter Diamandis – co-founder and Chairman of the X-Prize Foundation – to the first privately-funded space ship to reach an altitude of at least 62.5 miles twice within a two week period and carrying at least one live pilot along with the equivalent weight of two additional passengers (another 400 pounds).

Burt Rutan, who helped design, build and pilot the first aircraft to fly around the world non-stop without refueling (the Voyager in 1986), teamed up with Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen to fund development, test, and the flight of the SpaceShipOne, all reportedly at a cost of $30 million. Sir Richard Branson, founder and impresario of the firm Virgin Airways, chipped in with additional funding and has purchased the rights to use derivative commercial versions of the space ship to give paying passengers (at $200,000 per person) a flight into space, with several minutes of weightlessness as part of the deal.

While many state-lovers will continue to promote the mission of the "civilian" National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), this flight is the clearest signal that it is time for the Congress to abolish this $16.4 billion bureaucratic behemoth.

Currently, President Bush has sketched out a plan to have the taxpayers pony up the money to fund manned missions to Mars, which would undoubtedly cost billions upon billions of dollars, at least if the project is conducted the way most government programs are run. If this man-to-Mars project is actually pursued by the federal government, it would probably lead to an annual NASA budget of about $50 billion. As I stated in a previous article calling for NASA's abolition, it is time to save the taxpayer from wasting approximately $16.4 billion and turn civilian space programs over to the private sector.

Just as with the Internet, in which taxpayers funded the initial development – nothing much happened until the private sector grabbed it, at the right time of course, and marketed a useful product and service. The same thing is happening with the commercialization of space.

The most "salable" of NASA's current programs is what is called the Earth Sciences effort, in which NASA funds the design, launch, and operation of various satellites designed to collect scientific information about the planet Earth. These satellites collect data on the Earth's temperature and other scientific details. While the U.S. National Weather Service has its own set of satellites, privatizing NASA's Earth Science activity would enable the private sector to undertake these useful activities, but at a much lower cost to those who really need the services.

The rest of NASA activities are more akin to what one would have dreamt of as a result of reading a Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon comic (for those of Lew's readers too young to know, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon were comic book/newspaper cartoon characters from the 1930’s, when folks were beginning to envision manned space flight and its "cosmic" implications). Pipe dreams – whoever has them – should not be funded by taxpayers.

Ending NASA would also be a great step in promoting world peace, as commercial ventures invariably are done for profit, not for extending power over people or territory. And because these commercial ventures are done at a much lower cost, government efforts – even by the Chinese – would be surpassed at a much lower cost. Commercial markets, just as with the commercialization of the Internet, would drive the deployment.

The U.S. aerospace industry got its start in the twentieth century by such private ventures as "Lucky Lindy" flying to Paris to win the Orteig prize in his Ryan aircraft. While Boeing and Douglas made money building war planes, their greatest success came in building commercial aircraft (you can make more money building aircraft to haul people and goods than you can by building aircraft to drop bombs and kill your potential customers). Other aerospace efforts, with a hefty dose of private funding (even though many claim that World Wars I and II led to its development and growth), led to improved commercial aircraft.

As a child growing up in the 1950’s, I can remember my father showing me the 1954 Boeing Airplane Co. annual report (he owned a few shares of stock in that company at the time), in which the management showed a picture of the prototype of the Boeing 707. This aircraft was built on a "gamble" taken by the company's then-Chairman, William Allen. Bill Allen had flown in a Boeing B-47 bomber and thought that passengers would like the more comfortable vibration-free ride of a jet compared to the propeller-driven aircraft of the day. Allen committed Boeing to spend under $10 million (it might have been $5 million or less, but loss of my father's copy of that report and my failing memory prevent me from giving a "hard" number) of the company's money at that time to build the prototype. While the Air Force bought a number of these derivatives as tankers for refueling B-47’s and B-52’s, Boeing's great success lay in building passenger jets, not building bombers.

The U.S. aerospace industry, thwarted by sky-high costs, corporate "sclerosis" and government bungling, has nearly killed off American preeminence in commercial aircraft and space flight. (Look at the effects that post-9/11 "airport security measures" have had on Americans flying and on the number of commercial jets sold by Boeing.)

Now is the time to end government funding of civilian aerospace by abolishing NASA (privatizing the parts that can be sold to the private sector) and letting commercial enterprises – in a profit-making manner – bring the benefits of space flight to the civilian market place. This path – a negative industrial policy – is the only way for U.S. aerospace firms to regain leadership in this industry.

Jim Grichar (aka Exx-Gman) [send him mail], formerly an economist with the federal government, writes to “un-spin” the federal government’s attempt to con the public. He teaches economics part-time at a community college and provides economic consulting services to the private sector.

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