Thinking Tech

The most vital space product is profit

The most vital space product is profit

Posting in Aerospace

NASA wants to spend nearly $19 billion in the year starting October 1, for a program totally divorced from market forces the President's own advisory committee now calls unrealistic. How much more money will be going into space if we can just find a way to harness private enterprise to the effort?

My good friend John Dodge seems to think I'm for scrapping NASA, and thus space exploration.

Not true.

He's right on the central point. "Every earthling alive today or yet-to-be born has an interest in space exploration." Amen to that.

Our difference of opinion lies in how we get from here to there.

In my mind the most vital product space can produce today is a profit. Someone needs to make some money. Once they do funding is assured.

Now there are many ways to define profit. Government-funded space lift has given us cable television, and it has helped build the aerospace industry. Many people have made money off space, without having to invest even a portion of the real costs incurred.

The scientific progress made possible by Apollo, including the development of ARPANET -- grandfather to today's Internet -- tells us a lot about what government can provide business from big science projects.

But space has been using a government business model for 50 years now, and it's time to find new ones.

The fiction of Allen Steele, whose idea I borrowed yesterday, offers clues to what's possible.

In "Sex and Violence in Zero-G," the collection that made his reputation, space history starts with something akin to Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic. Stories like Orbital Decay and Clarke County, Space describe real science, unshackled from the need for absolute safety and tethered to the discipline of market economics.

There are truths neither Steele nor the market can run away from. Space is dangerous. Space lift is ferociously expensive. Living outside the gravity well too long makes you unfit for life inside it, and too long is shorter than you think.

But every vital industry has the same life cycle. It starts with scientific advances, usually funded by universities, and engineering, usually funded by government. It then goes into a venture capital phase, where 9 in 10 great ideas fail but where the real gold is refined.

The problem for space is that the capital required to launch a venture today is beyond what the private market can deliver, given the long odds.

Faced with this reality, our forefathers used their financial imaginations. The first transcontinental railways were given vast grants of land. The Erie Canal was a public-private partnership. Our great utilities were heavily regulated so they could get first crack at available capital.

All these 19th century ideas offer possible models for our time. What we need is for both the public and private sectors to sift through ideas, to back the most promising, and to see someone through to a profit.

NASA wants to spend nearly $19 billion in the year starting October 1, for a program totally divorced from market forces the President's own advisory committee now calls unrealistic.

How much more money will be going into space if we can just find a way to harness private enterprise to the effort?

In discussing health reform I have grown accustomed to being called a socialist (or worse) in the comments. On space, I guess, I'm Ronald Reagan. In both cases, however, I'm looking for practical solutions to knotty economic problems.

Ideology won't get us to Mars. It will take many acts of financial imagination.

Share this

Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure