Before I make my main discussion, I wish to point out a large number of corporation funded explorers. Also, the earliest recorded explorers were for the most part traders or colonizers not government funded (e.g., Marco Polo, Eric the Red). For example, the privateers of England were more or less completely self-financed by plunder and loot, but legally santioned by the Crown of England. Several performed significant exploration activities (Sir Francis Drake in particular). The early merchant companies (e.g., English and Dutch East India companies) did extensive exploring. Even the early naval explorers though funded by government were there for purely economic reasons (a faster trade route to the Far East meant a major boost in the economics and strength of a country). Several English and Dutch explorers were funded by these oldest of companies.
Many trails in the central and Western US were explored by businessmen or by pioneers. E.g., Daniel Boone founded a trail from Virginia through the Cumberland Gap to eastern Tennessee and Kentucky. As a result, he was able to parley his success into a term as US Senator of Kentucky. David Crockett, Senator of Tennessee (and of Alamo fame) did the same.
The US railroad barons surveyed and built the railroads connecting across the length of the US. The USGS surveyed the route (Lewis and Clark, Kit Carson, etc) and made it possible, but the railroad companies took big risks in laying the line. Indeed, in this century there are a number of examples of corporations willing to take big risks. So governments aren't necessary.
Corporations don't do things because they are cool, they do them to make money. NASA btw is pretty damned efficient. No corporation is going to run the ISS for less money than NASA is, except by operating it in an unsafe manner. Thats the history of corporations, profit over safety. Exxon Valdez anyone?
I disagree with the implied statement "NASA does cool (yet safe) things and corporations don't". NASA does have better vision than most corps, but the current organization is really living off of the good PR generated in the 60's. As far as man habitation goes, we've put one space station up there (Skylab) and are supporting a second. Russia has a better record since Mir is still up there and working!
I agree with the the arguments that specifically the ISS can't be properly commercialized. Tack on as additional problems the vagaries of public funding (being privatized won't help you get that money). OTOH, corporations have a proven record at minimizing costs while NASA has failed significantly in its latest attempt to reduce costs ("faster, cheaper, better?"). The airline industry is an example of an industry that has significant safety requirements and delivers on those demands. Indeed, the airline industry is a significant parallel to a private fledgling space industry.
One must ask why there's only enough resources for *one* space station (recall that NASA and others attempted to kill Mir)? NASA has a distressing tendency to build one of everything. E.g., there's one space telescope, both Jupiter and Saturn currently have one active probe each, one space station, etc. Further, the US-based launch capability is very restricted often with only one company occupying a particular price/performance region.
This latter point requires some elaboration. According to this, here is the list of current US launch vehicles as of January 2000:
My understanding is that here, "small" means up to 3000 pounds low earth orbit (LEO) or 800 pounds geostationary (GTO), "medium" means around 6000-12,000 pounds to LEO and 2000-4000 pounds in GTO, and "large" is above this range. Loads can very considerably depending on the location of the launch site and the desired final orbit parameters.
- Small: Pegasus, Taurus
- Medium: Delta II, Titan II
- Large: Atlas II , Titan versions, Space Shuttle
Titans are used by the US military. The Space Shuttle is owned and operated by NASA. Pegasus and the larger Taurus are produced by Orbital Sciences Corp. Delta II is by Boeing. Lockheed/Martin owns and launches the Titan and Atlas vehicles. Note that the first two general categories contain several launch platforms operated by a single vendor. Since then, "Sea Launch" a Boeing/
I.e., if I wish to launch a "small" package then I have two choices Pegasus and Taurus, but there is a single vendor: Orbital Sciences. Boeing is the single Medium size platform (except if you're military in which case the single vendor is Lockheed). Lockheed has done the best. They have the Titans and Atlas II covering medium for the military and owning the only private large scale boosters. The space shuttle has the maximum load of any US platform of up to 55,000 pounds LEO depending on the duration of the flight and the desired orbital parameters. Note that Atlas and the Shuttle don't compete much since the Space Shuttle often handles missions that no rocket can handle and that the Shuttle is considerably more expensive than an Atlas launch ($500 million vs $100 million I guess).
so what does this mean? It means that launches are virtually noncompetitive in the US market(the Large scale has a number of international competitors mostly government). Why am I so focussed on launch capability? Because you aren't going to have anything in space until somebody puts it there.
The point is that NASA is promoting this static state of affairs. We have effectively three launch companies at this time (Lockheed/Martin, Orbital Sciences, and Boeing). Internationally, the situation is similar. The barrier to entry is high (and artificially so). I.e., there are two categories of barriers. The first is the extreme amount of infrastructure required to launch a vehicle. One must have manufacturing capability to build the vehicle, the earth-side transport and launch facilities, and the tracking facilities needed to maintain control of a launch after it leaves the ground. NASA and Russia have the best tracking networks out there (another area of government control).
The second barrier to entry is legal barriers. Clearly, it's not good to have rockets landing in downtown London, so regulations are required for a healthy space economy. Here again, the airline industry is a good example of the right and wrong approaches to a regulated transportation network. Clearly wrong approaches are airlines that have a monopoly on a nation or region, but there are poorly regulated competitive airlines that are worse (e.g., in Russia). I argue that the competitive lines of the US and parts of Europe are generally cheaper and safer than their monopolized counterparts. Similarly, space transportation needs a large number of competitors to function well, but this market needs regulation. If we look at the current state in the world, we see many fiefdoms each with its own little clique of customers and suppliers. Often (as in the case of NASA) there are legal and political restrictions.
None of the government agencies provide support for independent launchers. E.g., NASA has its selected group of companies that provide launch services. Similarly, ESA has its assembly of companies. An independent launcher would threaten these arrangements. OTOH, if you're a member of one of these groups, then you will get guaranteed business from the hosting organization (and an unfair competitive advantage).
So here's my conclusions. Large areas of space flight need to be commercialized. The most important at this stage is space launch capability from Earth to orbit. Too much launch capability is in the hands of noncompetitive groups and these groups show signs that they prefer it that way.
Please flame away. This article needs some more comments anyway.
Stating the obvious since 1969.
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