Thoughts on Manned Space #3: Don't Leave it to the Government

When it came to colonizing the New World, the governments of Europe had a big role in support, but when it came down to it, it was the commercial businesses and private citizens that ensures a permanent presence.  If we're going to have the same kind of success in space, we need to have the same kind of participation, but it seems many people have forgotten that.  Thus, let me present three reasons I see why we cannot leave space exploration to the government:

#1  The government has other priorities.  Let's face it, the government has gone waaay beyond what the founding fathers intended, and we have a huge deficit and a lot of conflict as a result.    What's the government's job in space, then?  I'd suggest it's pretty much the same as it is on Earth--protecting the rights and freedoms of its citizens.  Step one is establishing a presence in space--a permanent, sustainable presence.  Just like with colonization of the New World, that doesn't mean only government employees or government-funded exhibitions, however.  It does mean being ready to support even defend its citizens who go fare beyond the Earth.  (Sorry, Space is for Peace supporters--I want space to be peaceful, too, but not every nation is going to support that, and if they challenge our presence, we'll need government presence to defend us.  And that can be diplomatic as well as military.)  However, government role is support of space endeavors and the rights of its citizens in space--not taking on the whole manned space program itself.

#2  Governments are more swayed or stymied by public opinion.  Sure, commercial companies need to have a good image, but frankly, as long as they are pleasing their customers, the rest of the world can take their business elsewhere.  Governments, unless they're totalitarian and can do what they please, thank you very much, can be swayed by opinions like this one:  End Space Exploration Now.  And in fact, our government HAS been swayed by opinions like this, which is why the space program has had such rocky fits and starts.  Unless space exploration can directly "feed the hungry children" or cut unemployment by several percentages (I don't think they'd be satisfied with anything less) or solve the deficit or whatever the political crisis du jour is, it will not get a gung-ho kind of support we got when first putting a man on the Moon.  Without gung-ho support that crosses political parties, we're not going to get a long-lasting coherent government space program.

#3  Governments aren't big on innovation.  Yes, I know it's one of NASAs missions to promote new technology, but as a counter, may I present a space shuttle that had to be decommissioned because they couldn't find parts, a bomber fleet in which today's pilots are literally flying their grandfathers' airplanes, a fighter program that might be canceled because Congress won't fund it...  Or let's talk cost overruns because of the way the contracting system works in the government.   Or maybe how a new administration can kill a program media res and replace it with his own great idea...which may or may not survive the next election.

The fact is, the government isn't interested in profit or product the way a commercial industry has to be.  So when it comes to technological programs, they are looking as much at will it make jobs and promote themselves or their party as will it create a product that will get the job done--and then how to create the next one to do it cheaper, easier or more safely.  I'm not trying to put down NASA or government contractors like Lockheed Martin, but they are at the mercy of the political system, which really is more conducive to road repair than rocket building.

Government has a role in space exploration.  It can do some things commercial industries, especially fledgling ones, can't.  However, if we want a real, sustained presence outside the atmosphere, it will take more than the government.

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Terri said...

>>>Governments are more swayed or stymied by public opinion. Sure, commercial companies need to have a good image, but frankly, as long as they are pleasing their customers, the rest of the world can take their business elsewhere.<<<

When it comes to exploration, within reason (witness the banking problems that occured when short term profit taking underminded the long term security of the very institutions looking for a quick buck) this is true. However, when we move past exploration and toward colonization, then you have a problem. Businesses are used to acting like totalitarian governments. Employees are hired and fired, often without cause other than personality differences with the boss. Policies come down from the top without regard of the opinions of those at the bottom who have to carry out those policies. Speed is often chosen over efficiency. This works well in business.

Colonies, however, eventually are populated with people who are not part of the business/governmental interest that founded them. The bakery owner who uses the flour produced by the milling of the wheat produced in the agricultural dome to bake his goodies and sell them to the butcher and candlestick maker doesn't appreciate being treated as am employee or serf of the corporate lord of the manor back on earth.

At some point, businesses in a colony, even if they invested heavily in the development of that colony, have to let go of their control over anything other than their commercial interests and submit themselves to whatever type of government emerges in the colony.

This is the lesson of just about every colonial experience that involved heavy corporate investment.

So, the time for private industry to step up to the plate is now in space exploration, space transport, resource development and maybe even establishment of space platforms for research. Hey, even entertainment functions and tourism.

However, as colonies form, neither a remote government entity back on Earth or a Corporate overlord will be able to establish a stable community without eventually having to step aside. When it comes to colonialism, Governments and Corporations alike must view themselves more as parents than rulers. They give birth, nurture, and then at the right time let go. Unfortunately, neither governments nor corporations are very good at letting go.

Walt said...

Terri's take is a common trope in science fiction. Such works as Lester Del Ray's Police Your Planet and Robert Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress being classic examples.

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