The word “socialism” has been bandied about a lot during the last year and applied to many situations that are a long way from the traditional understanding of the word: vesting full control over the means of production in government. It has been used to describe proposed and enacted changes to laws about health care, cap and trade, corporate bailouts, financial regulation, education, and even middle class tax cuts. While it may well be rational to argue that any increase in the size, power, or impact of government advances us on “the road to socialism,” the same thing can be said about the Patriot Act, No Child Left Behind or the vast majority of other laws enacted by Congress during the last 221 years.
Interestingly there is a change being proposed by the Obama administration that deals with a government program where full control of the means of production is already in government hands – and the Obama team wants to change that. That’s right. In at least one instance, Barack Obama wants to put America on the road to capitalism.
The program in question is called Constellation, NASA’s failed plan for a government designed, owned and operated repeat of the Apollo program.
Every detail of this plan originates from within a government bureaucracy. Private sector participation is limited to carrying out the terms of extremely detailed contracts. Every material used, the thread on every bolt, and the color of the paint is to be precisely specified. Once built, the various parts of the Constellation system are to be operated from government facilities and by government employees. (The solid rocket boosters that are strapped onto the Space Shuttle offer a vivid example of how we currently conduct human spaceflight; according to Space News “Kent Rominger, a former space shuttle astronaut now with Alliant Techsystems of Minneapolis, said the space shuttle solid-rocket boosters his employer builds for NASA must meet some 32,000 individual requirements spelled out in 110 separate documents totaling 17,000 pages.”
Not only is the Obama Administration proposing ending this socialist boondoggle, they want to use a big chunk of the money saved to promote competition among private sector players who are to both own and control the means of production, with government’s role limited to buying needed services and maintaining a regulatory environment that is to encourage innovation while protecting public safety. This economic system is commonly called “capitalism.”
There is no reason to think that either socialism or capitalism will work any better, or worse, when applied to spaceflight than they do when applied to terrestrial endeavors. Central planning is wonderfully effective at making the trains run on time, building up military might or putting a few men on the surface of the moon. Capitalism excels at lowering costs, improving safety and finding new innovations to serve expanding markets.
Spaceflight is an unusual market in one important respect: whether discussing cargo or people, governments are, and will remain for many years to come, the largest consumers of spaceflight services. Military needs alone account for a gigantic proportion of the launch market, supplemented by government demand for environmental remote sensing and space exploration. This means that taxpayers will be the largest beneficiaries of a free competitive market in spaceflight.
Even if there was a large price to pay for abandoning central planning and making the leap to the marketplace, it would still be a good deal for taxpayers. As it turns out the Constellation program is such a mess that the only people who would pay for abandoning it work for a few government contractors. While we can all feel sympathy for the discomfort these people are experiencing by having the rigors of the marketplace thrust upon them for the first time, and one can hope that both government and their employers will aid them in making this difficult transition, their difficulties pale in comparison to the benefits that this change offers to all people, including future generations.
A peculiar side effect of space socialism is that it has impeded the development and adoption of new spaceflight technologies. Bureaucracies lack motivations to advance disruptive technology if they already have something that works well enough. Both the International Space Station and the Constellation program made conscious decisions to severely limit the inclusion of new technologies. This too the Obama administration is proposing to change by taking another big chunk of the money saved by canceling Constellation and investing it in what NASA Administrator Bolden calls “foundational and game-changing technologies that will expand our exploration opportunities, reduce mission costs, contribute NASA innovation to broader national needs, and grow the American economy by creating new high-tech jobs.”
You might think that Republicans would be supportive of this move from real socialism to real capitalism. You would be wrong. Aside from a few notable voices, like Newt Gingrich, Bob Walker and Dana Rohrabacher, Republicans have been either silent or opposed. Their reasons are political; their rhetoric is sophistry. Unless more people who care about reality more than rhetoric stand up and insist that America takes capitalism seriously they are going to lead us on the real road to real socialism in human spaceflight.