NASA and Private Enterprise


Space has become an extension of the capitalist project.  Not that it should surprise anybody. The market, when allowed, has a tendency to be all-consuming, and allowing the Russians the sole means of supplying the international space station was not a situation those at NASA would have tolerated indefinitely.  In 2006, NASA announced it would supply two industry partners with half a billion dollars to develop appropriate transportation services to the ISS.

Only the previous year, the agency was given the go ahead through the NASA Authorisation Act to advance the cause of space commerce.  The Commercial Orbital Transportation Program (COTS) marked, in the words of Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of the Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office at NASA, ‘a significant NASA activity to implement the commercialisation portion of US space policy’.

One of those to first receive assistance from NASA was the US company SpaceX, an example of how the US hopes to catch up with Japan, Russia and Europe in being able to supply the ISS.  The situation became more acute once the shuttle program was retired in 2011.  Uncle Sam was falling behind.

SpaceX is owned by the modern, mercantile South African Elon Musk, PayPal’s co-founder, a billionaire who fancies himself as something of a modern Vasco da Gama, or, more likely, the brigand-like qualities of a Francis Drake.  The modern comparison has been to the fictional stinking rich character Iron Man, whom he is said to have inspired.  ‘We are really at the dawn of a new era of space exploration, one where there is a much bigger role for commercial space companies.’

That commerce is receiving funding from Washington in what are bound to be examples of space mercantilism.  SpaceX itself has a $1.6 billion contract, Orbital Sciences somewhere in the order of $1.9 billion.  As NASA administrator Charles Bolden explained, NASA’s interests are elsewhere – ‘exploring even deeper into our solar system, with missions to an asteroid and Mars on the horizon’.  The drudgery of transport was best left to the ‘private sector’.

Bolden’s own historical frame of reference is smaller. ‘The Internet was created as a government endeavour but then the introduction of commercial companies really accelerated the growth of the Internet and made it accessible to the mainstream.’  He might well go back to the European courts of the fifteenth century, when aggressive colonial forces were unleased upon much of the world, courtesy of government trading companies.  An empire on earth can well move to one in space.  Indeed, Michael Milstein, writing for Popular Mechanics (Oct 1, 2009), did not shy away from the words ‘solar-system conquest’.

The Dragon space capsule, attached to the SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, is a versatile beast, able to carry both crew members (up to seven) and cargo.  And it will have few rivals.  The reality remains that space travel is a frightfully expensive business. The only individuals who tend to go into extra terrestrial orbit, leaving aside astronauts, are rather wealthy earth gazers with a fetish.  Till a formula is found to bring down costs and build cheaper equipment, space will, thankfully, be a less crowded place.  We might even claim it will be a less imperial place.  NASA is determined to change that.


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com




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