Friday, November 12, 2010

Per Libertas Ad Astra

In the course of my journey from Big Government Liberal to libertarian-esque Conservative, one of the hardest things for me to let go of has been my hitherto-unquestioned belief that it is the business of the Federal Government to shepherd humanity into space.

It had always been an article of faith for me that only an Apollo-like Project could midwife the hatching of our species, at long last, from its primordial creche at the bottom of the Earth's gravity well, and out into the cosmos, where it belongs. The maddeningly slow progress of that momentous trek, of course, had to be due to an infuriating lack of vision at the top: If only Nixon had not killed the versatile and muscular Apollo in favor of the nifty but limited and cash-hungry (and ultimately lethal) Shuttle (and if only that program had not itself become freighted with the 'all-things-to-all-constituencies' bloat which subverted its initial purpose as a cheap, fully re-usable space truck), we could have expanded Skylab into a proper orbital village. If only Vietnam had not squandered so much of this Nation's wealth on a vain and pointless struggle against somethingorother, we could at least have had a fracking Moon Base. If only the Luddite fetishes of the 70s-era environmentalists hadn't refocused NASA into an operation bent on going around in circles, gazing at its own navel, we would have made it to Mars (and, having been an Environmentalist myself, this last came with no small quantum of cognitive dissonance!). On and on, I gritted my teeth at the absence of a Mission for the agency in charge of our Government's sacred trust to lift us to the stars.

It was only long after I had transitioned from Liberalism to a succession of species of Conservative that I had what, in retrospect, was a rather embarrassingly-belated realization: Why the blazes should mere Government be expected to oversee --let alone monopolize-- the greatest adventure on which humanity would ever embark? Why should it be the (IRS-enforced) obligation of a grain farmer in Iowa, or a Burger King manager in Virginia...or a clinical psychologist in Philadelphia to bankroll our evolution into a spacefaring species? If humans are going to hoist themselves into free space and forge a destiny in its airless reaches, why on earth (pun intentional) must it be left to the grinding Rube-Goldberg mechanism of pork-laden appropriations to make it so?

In an editorial by Iain Murphy and Rand Simberg at The American Spectator, the authors tackle this very question, and articulate the answer in devastatingly clear terms: It shouldn't:
There's something about space policy that makes conservatives forget their principles. Just one mention of NASA, and conservatives are quite happy to check their small-government instincts at the door and vote in favor of massive government programs and harsh regulations that stifle private enterprise. It's time to abort that mission. [...]
It is time for conservatives to recognize that Apollo is over. We must recognize that Apollo was a centrally planned monopolistic government program for a few government employees, in the service of Cold War propaganda and was therefore itself an affront to American values. If we want to seriously explore, and potentially exploit space, we need to harness private enterprise, and push the technologies really needed to do so.
One of the few things that the Obama Administration has gotten resoundingly and unambiguously right was the shift of NASA's priorities from old-school, Manhattan Project thinking on space access, in favor of a less-centralized, free-market approach. I know...right? Here is one area in which the Administration's singular (and in so many other ways extraordinarily dangerous and misguided) focus on a domestic policy of Transforming America tm  has happened to strike precisely the right note. Now, if this is simply a case of doing the correct things for the wrong reasons, then I'll take it just the same.

For, so long as this Administration shows its indifference and disdain for human spaceflight by refusing to bestow upon it a Big Government Project (which, in Obama's world, is the ultimate marker of value, after all), then that endeavor stands a chance of actually getting off the ground. On the one hand you have a set of fixed-funded, results-based benchmark incentives for competing private industries' achievements in developing a viable, human-rated commercial launch and orbital operations system (from which NASA can then purchase flights, while shouldering a relatively paltry share of the R&D costs). On the other, you have the usual cost-plus shenanigans of the usual suspects drawing the usual (voluminous) booty into the usual districts. The pace of the process might not be as gratifyingly brisk as you get when you unleash the jury-rigged juggernaut of State-Sponsored Will on a problem. At least not at first. But as markets are created and exploited through a ratcheting series of entrepreneurial beach-heads, the gains are apt to be more durable (as their funding streams will not be pegged to the American election cycle), and to ramp up more steeply once established (same reason).

So, it took Bigelow and Branson and Musk to make manifest what had previously only been that, in the end, even I got it. I've been able to redirect my geek sensibilities in a direction more in keeping with my larger politico-economic explanatory system (and thus to discover that, even at my advanced age, I am still capable of changing my mind on important matters. Again.). And all this just in time for some most unexpectedly sensible legislation from the last Administration from which I would've seen it coming. Epic win!

And, in the end, once Bigelow builds his station, and clients (including NASA) start lining up, you start to introduce modest economies of scale, which bring down costs to orbit, which opens up new markets...and suddenly the landscape seems a mite more amenable than it ever would have been under NASA to the prospect of my not shuffling off before having seen the blue-white, gracefully-curved limb of the Earth, brightly sunlit under a black sky...


Mike said...

'Cyte>Now, if this is simply a case of doing the correct things for the wrong reasons, then I'll take it just the same.

Well, I see it more as a case of a stopped clock being right twice a day, but I took, will take it just the same :).

IAC, welcome to this side of the debate. In time, maybe you'll also come to realize that "nation building" equates to managing an economy PLUS an engineering task orders of magnitude more difficult than manned spaceflight.

Until then, I'll keep giving you shit :).

Mike said...

Oops, that was supposed to be "I too" rather than "I took." Thanks for the editing options, google :/.

Noocyte said...

Yah, I figured that was what you meant (and yes, an edit function would be another in a long list of things Google is really honking me off by not having).

Given my history, I'm the last person who's going to declare it impossible that my views on foreign policy will ever change. It's just that I find the arguments, so far, sufficiently unsatisfying that I perceive no compelling impetus to revise them...not that I'm in any semblance of the mood to re-re-re-re-visit that conversation right now.

Suffice it to say that it's really apples and owls when it comes to the human spaceflight/National Defense exemptions which have survived my journey away from the Benevolent State delusions of my youth.