Response to ‘Houston, we have a privatization problem’

Monday’s Minnesota Daily column regarding the privatization of space travel was premature. The two failures cited in recent space flight accidents have distinct causes that will be discovered in the extensive investigations sure to follow. The causes may be design or manufacturing flaws, or they may be cultural or procedural.

Either way, it is not helpful to draw conclusions before appropriate investigations have been conducted. First, a note on the definition of what it means to privatize. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo was designed with the intention of commercial spaceflight, not privatization. Virgin’s goal is to provide a service currently not offered. They are not being contracted to provide a public good or provide a service currently offered by the state.

The column is misleading since the recent changes in NASA policy are a matter of degree rather than type. Some level of private industry has always been involved in spaceflight and every other engineering and scientific endeavor. Even before the “privatization of space,” NASA and the European Space Agency purchased engineering components from private industries specializing in everything from fasteners to seals to bearings to hydraulic actuators. This practice is safer since these firms specialize in these areas and cheaper since it allows private firms to compete for NASA’s business.

Even the practice of purchasing whole rockets is not new, since the Saturn V, which launched the Apollo missions, was composed of sections manufactured by Boeing and Douglas, among other companies. The safety of these devices is determined by their design and construction rather than by the funding paths or legal responsibility.

NASA is not necessarily accepting any new risk by contracting delivery services rather than rocket sections. If commercial entities could produce safe rockets before, there is no reason to believe they can’t do it today. Procurement practices aside, the most significant problem with this discussion is the assumption that space travel is safe.

Endeavors such as spaceflight are only possible with factors of safety much less than we are used to in the construction of our cars and homes. Even perfectly executed spaceflight is inherently dangerous given the physiological effects of increased radiation exposure and reduced gravity.

 Reports such as that of the Rogers Commission remind us that the mitigation of the danger of spaceflight is accomplished through sound engineering practice and culture and is not inherent in government control.