After decades of stagnation in the “space race,” exploration of the cosmos may once again come into vogue. And, astoundingly, it may not be the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) that is leading the charge. The world is very much aware of the success of Elon Musk. Now, billionaire entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson recently completed his first trip to outer space. NBC News reported that Branson journeyed to the edge of space with a full crew manning a rocket-powered vehicle developed by Branson-founded Virgin Galactic. Jeff Bezos will soon make a similar trip aboard a vehicle developed by his own space pioneering company, Blue Origin.
This healthy rivalry in private space exploration shows that the cosmos need not be monopolized by government agencies plagued by cost overruns. This market innovation, though, must not be stifled by the ever-present threat of taxpayer-funded corporate welfare. Competition and innovation can take space exploration to new heights, but only with the right set of incentives.
The idea of millionaires vacationing in space is certainly not a new concept. But as Ars Technica senior space editor Eric Berger notes, Branson’s exploits represent something larger than trendy traveling. Berger predicts, “Starting with Branson and going forward, it seems likely that 95% of human spaceflights over the next half century, if not more, will take place on privately built vehicles by private citizens.”
This bold pronouncement is certainly counterintuitive. As Branson and Bezos barely scratch the cosmos, NASA is in the middle of planning an ambitious trip to the Moon and beyond. Strongly backed by the Biden administration, the space agency’s Artemis program aims to land an astronaut on the Moon by 2024. Manned missions in the works include the establishment of “Artemis Base Camp,” which would host astronauts on future lunar visits and help pave the way for a manned mission to Mars. This lofty mission, though, is unlikely to live up to expectations and could mean a black hole where taxpayer dollars disappear.
John Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, notes, “In order to make the 2024 goal, everything in the sequence leading up to it had to go right. And in programs like this, that doesn’t usually happen.”
NASA has already delayed the lunar lander contracting process, claiming (predictably) that the holdup is due to a lack of funding even though former agency head Jim Bridenstine admitted at the time that NASA will receive “a lot” of funding for its manned mission programs. NASA is indeed well funded with its (inflation-adjusted) budget increasing in recent years. The problem is that the space agency isn’t transparent in how it churns through taxpayer dollars.
For example, the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, tasked with ferrying astronauts deep into space for manned missions, has had many problems. NASA has spent more than $1.2 billion per year on this program – roughly 6% of the agency’s budget – since fiscal year 2012. And those are just the direct costs on paper. The inspector general found “NASA’s exclusion of more than $17 billion in Orion‐related costs has hindered the overall transparency of the vehicle’s complete costs.” Throwing more money at the problem will only result in increased program delays and excuse-making.
The Artemis program is already projected to cost taxpayers $35 billion, and costs will surely soar considering past overruns. In contrast, companies such as SpaceX have been busy lowering costs to shoot for the stars. This cost-cutting, though, could easily be jeopardized by policymakers trying to entice space companies with taxpayer subsidies. New Mexico has rightly received flack for putting up most of the $220 million required to build Virgin Galactic’s Spaceport America. Additionally, competition could easily be threatened by the impression that some companies are benefitting more than others from NASA funding. Lawmakers and agency officials should avoid picking winners and losers and examine ways to lower regulatory barriers to private space exploration.
It’s time for a new space race devoid of delayed schedules and bloated budgets.
Ross Marchand is a senior fellow for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.