Houston, we have a privatization problem

Two separate accidents have challenged the idea that it is safe to privatize space travel.

Anant Naik

Two separate accidents have made this past week a nightmare for the movement to privatize space exploration.

Orbital Sciences, a private firm contracted by NASA to refuel the International Space Station, released the Antares Rocket with supplies totaling $200
million.

The rocket held important scientific equipment and food for the six astronauts on the space station, in addition to classified cryptography equipment.

About 15 seconds after the rocket lifted off, it all came down in a ball of fire. Local news stations reported that the force of the explosion knocked down ceiling tiles and broke windows at businesses miles away from the liftoff site.

In an unrelated incident on Friday, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, a new aircraft designed to provide the impetus for commercial space travel, crashed in the Mojave Desert. One of the two pilots was killed, and the other was severely injured.

Before these two disasters, investors claimed that space would be the travel destination of the future. They placed the value of the space travel market at $300 billion and argued that amount was expected to double by 2030. Now, even the owner of Virgin Galactic, Sir Richard Branson, predicts that these crashes have compromised the entire industry. Furthermore, they question the future of the modern space race’s privatization.

Privatization is not the best course for the future of space exploration. A few years ago, the Obama administration announced a plan to privatize parts of NASA by contracting functions of the organization to private corporations — as happened to Orbital Sciences. However, this idea opened up the possibility for private corporations to explore space travel as a business.

This possibility is practically and economically disadvantageous, and it involves tremendous safety concerns.

First, privatization of the space industry would require a massive data-sharing program that would be unpopular among NASA workers. For example, companies that aren’t working with NASA would need either to conduct their own research on how aircraft re-entry works or buy the patents to the space program’s algorithms.

Most critics argue that NASA alone is simply too expensive. People who aren’t directly benefiting from the program criticize government spending on it, declaring it unnecessary.

Nevertheless, the adverse effects of privatization are even more problematic.

The dispersion of NASA would likely result in a government regulation agency to set safety requirements for private businesses to follow. Red tape is inefficient and expensive. Regulative agencies would be costly and would require additional government spending anyway.

This isn’t to say that private space travel won’t be possible someday. Given the resources and increased cooperation between NASA and private corporations, as well as other countries, it’s conceivable to see private space travel as a viable future to work toward.

But for now, the stars are still far, far away.