Pro/Con: Can the U.S. revive the space program by turning it over to the private sector?

Yes: NASA today is more 'sky is falling' than 'sky's the limit' As with so many federal agencies, NASA started our with a noble mission and over time evolved into a sluggish bureaucracy. And now, sadly, it's spending too much of its time and budg...

Yes: NASA today is more 'sky is falling' than 'sky's the limit'

As with so many federal agencies, NASA started our with a noble mission and over time evolved into a sluggish bureaucracy. And now, sadly, it's spending too much of its time and budget indulging in politics.

As a result, it's constantly being outdone by smaller and innovative private space ventures in places like Brazil, Russia, China, and, yes, even the United States.

The American private sector already has shown it can do a better and more cost-effective job of delivering passengers, cargo, satellites and science labs into space. In fact, NASA has awarded numerous contracts to private space contractors like SpaceX and Space Exploration Technologies, but still insists on clinging to its monopoly command position.

To regain America's competitive space edge, the United States should fold NASA and -- using far less costly tax incentives -- aid and allow private entrepreneurs to fill the void.


NASA and America's giant defense contractors -- savvy D.C. players like Dick Cheney's old firm Halliburton, Boeing and Northrop Grumman -- strenuously object to anything that would end the cozy bidding arrangements that guarantee billions of dollars of little-scrutinized cost overruns each year.

Every time a public-spirited citizen suggests there might be a better way, their lobbying brigades fan out across Capitol Hill button-holing lawmakers and promising millions of dollars in campaign contributions.

While NASA's successes in space have shriveled in recent years, it has spent inordinate amounts of time and money promoting off-mission causes.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger explosion and the third anniversary of the break-up of the space shuttle Columbia over Texas. Yet NASA insists on putting more lives at risk by continuing to launch these 31-year-old jalopies into space while it spends billions more to develop a safe new vehicle.

The space shuttle's successor, branded the Crew Exploration Vehicle, has been dubbed Apollo on steroids by excited NASA managers, which ought to give taxpayers pause. It won't be ready for flight until at least 2010. It appears that NASA's forward thrust, once again, is back to the future.

Congress should end this travesty and turn over space to the private sector where success is the key ingredient because there are shareholders who care about the bottom line.

The talented NASA engineers and scientists who served honorably and brought glory to America for the past few decades undoubtedly can find better-paying jobs and more intellectual rewards as well in the private sector.

Private space enterprises can fly us to the moon and eventually lodge us in luxury hotels on Mars. NASA -- continuing to suffer from tired blood and myopic vision -- will only disappoint us and waste our tax dollars.


Eric Peters is an automotive columnist for The Army Times and The Navy Times.

No: NASA needs slam-bang tang reminiscent of its impetuous youth

It is true NASA gave us Tang, the awful synthetic orange drink that was concocted for astronauts. But it has given us much, much, much more. It has given us the life we live today, from satellite communications to GPS navigation.

Its contribution in materials has revolutionized the clothes we wear, the sporting equipment we use and the medical devices that prolong our lives. As might be expected, modern aircraft are chock full of NASA-generated technology. Watch any large aircraft at an airport and note the vertical fins on the tips of the wings, known as winglets. These reduce the turbulence coming off of the wings. But they are only a visual indication of the NASA goodies that make modern aircraft safer, stronger and more efficient.

Unfortunately, much of the sheen has come off of NASA. It has faded in public esteem. And without its glamour, it no longer attracts the best engineers and scientists.

It is also suffering from years of political interference. John F. Kennedy told NASA to get to the moon. Today, politicians want to tell NASA how to get there, in what vehicle, and with which contractors.

As recently as the 1970s, NASA was still the super-agency -- so much so that when the energy crisis struck, many people looked to NASA to come up with solutions. NASA was invincible.

Not so today. It looks sclerotic, bumbling and unable to perform safely.


Now, some of the people who question NASA and interfere with its objectives and aspirations have a solution: privatize it. How would this be done? Would it be sold to one of the contractors who is already a NASA contractor, such as Boeing or the ubiquitous Carlyle Group, which has large satellite holdings?

Alternatively, possibly, it could be spun off as a free-standing company with one, bullying, difficult customer: the government. A new free-standing company would have all the weaknesses of a defense contractor with lawyers and lobbyists devoted to getting their way in Congress, not the nation's way in space.

Some of the enthusiasm for privatization has been spurred by the success of Burt Rutan with his extraordinary success in getting SpaceShipOne into suborbital space as a private venture with very little money.

Although this was an extraordinary achievement, it does not follow that a privatized NASA would listen to mavericks like Rutan, or that many of the missions of NASA could be accomplished under the guidance of a Rutan.

Would a private company have been able to talk the government out of involvement in the International Space Station, which has consumed NASA for so long and which was created for diplomatic as much as for scientific purposes?

NASA has done well in deep space, but manned space flight has lagged. President Bush's plan to send people back to the moon has not inflamed public passions, or passions in NASA. Although it is working on the Orion moon shuttles, there is a sense that politics will close the program before a single rocket motor has fired.

NASA needs fixing, re-energizing, and it needs to be revalidated with a great frontier project. But something else needs fixing as well -- and that is the criteria by which we decide what is best done by government and what is best done by private enterprise and the marketplace.

Federalizing baggage inspectors at airports was brainless: The new inspectors do the jobs no better than the old contracted inspectors. Nationalizing the oil companies would dry up the supply of oil. Privatizing NASA will dry up space exploration.


What is needed is a NASA that is shielded from petty political interference and which can accommodate and nurture great engineering romantics such as Burt Rutan. And the fellow who invented Tang.

Llewellyn King is the publisher of White House Weekly ( ) and host of the weekly PBS television show "White House Chronicle."

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