Jewish World Review May 9, 2001 / 16 Iyar, 5761
The US should overcome its humiliation and look at the potential for space commerce revealed by Dennis Tito's orbit
http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- So now the Russians are too capitalist, are they? That at least seems to be the consensus in the west, where Nasa and the media alike are lambasting Russian officials for accepting $20m from the Californian investor Dennis Tito in exchange for a six-day ride on the International Space Station.
As it became clear, late last week, that Mr Tito would not only experience the dream of every western male but also make it safely back to the steppes of Kazakhstan, the outrage spread. The space tourist's report that his trip was "paradise" seemed to seal the damage: the critics now charge that the Russians have irreversibly Disneyified space, dirtying the pure air of a state-sector industry.
One might fault the Russians here for fanning the flame of American rage - "If he will sign a contract, every citizen of the planet can ride if his health permits," Yuri Grigoryev of Russia's Energia rocket company told The Washington Post. "The station is open to commercialisation." Mr Grigoryev might just as well have said: "Take that, Land of the Free!"
Still, the attackers are too hasty. Space exploration these days is, after all, as much an innovative and scientific project as a military one. And when it comes to innovation, the profit motive has tended to show up the public sector every time. What holds on earth could hold at the Final Frontier.
Consider the objections levied against Mr Tito and his Russian co-conspirators.
First, there is the complaint that only professionals should be allowed to travel in space. This argument belies the record of the space race, which in fact is littered with examples of rank amateurs - and animals - entering orbit. One thinks of Laika the dog, or Christa McAuliffe, the schoolteacher who went down with the Challenger. Space "fairness", as author Tom Wolfe long ago pointed out in The Right Stuff, is an inherently risible concept: "The ape was an astronaut! Perhaps the female ape who backed him up deserved the next flight. Let her fly, godammit! She has earned it as much as the seven human ones." Besides, Mr Tito in fact is something of a space professional - in his younger days he put in years at Nasa's Pasadena jet propulsion laboratory, which means that he is a rocket scientist.
Second, it is said that permitting civilian guests to come along is too dangerous. The first reply here should be: too dangerous for whom? Military and space exercises are always and inherently risky for the professional participants and for innocent bystanders as well. Claiming that the additional distraction of a guest will always make the mission more dangerous suggests that the hosts cannot know their own limits. This is probably wrong. It is a sure bet, for example, that the US Navy is currently rewriting its rule books to prevent a repeat of its Greeneville disaster, when a US submarine surfaced and killed nine Japanese on a fishing boat. And the cash tourism supplies will also allow expensive safety improvements - $20m is enough to upgrade a lot of equipment.
If the issue is the fate of the paying passenger, the safety argument becomes even weaker. Like any Ferrari owner, Mr Tito knew what he was undertaking. The choice here should be up to the individual. Many will decline - most Americans, after all, will not drive a car without an airbag, let alone fly Aeroflot or ride Soyuz into the ether. Before Mr Tito signed away all rights to lawsuits, many Americans were charging that trips like his would make the military, or Nasa, vulnerable to troubling litigation. But if the US cannot reconcile its adventure culture with its litigious one, it is probably the latter that needs reforming.
Third, critics argue it is wrong to sell a public good. The western taxpayer is footing a good share of the cost of the space station; why should Mr Tito, a private citizen, benefit from that? The first response here is simple: he should not. And from the point of the Russian taxpayers, he did not: they got $20m for their hospitality. If Nasa had not worked itself into such a huff over his trip, Nasa lawyers might have thought to write their agency into the contract with Mr Tito.
But there is a more profound answer here. It is that governments always sell public goods when it suits them. Think of Senator John Glenn's 1990s ride, a blatant bid for continued funding. The only difference here is that instead of selling those goods to a lawmaker or another person of political influence, the Russian government sold to a citizen for cash.
Lastly, it is alleged that the Russians will use the money for dark purposes. Perhaps. But the incentive of a steady cash stream from late-life-crisis millionaires is more likely to lure the Russians into the relatively benign business of space tourism. Commerce reduces bellicosity - at least, that is the case the west makes for engagement with China - and money is fungible. A Russia funded by geriatric thrillseekers may no longer feel the need to hawk its armoury and intellectual capital to rogue states.
The real trouble with the critics' claims, though, is that they obscure the benefits that space tourism may bring. Fans of the private sector have long pointed to Nasa's legendary inefficiencies. If business had been allowed to compete with Nasa, they argue, there would already be time-shares for sale on Mars.
They are probably right. But you do not have to be a blinkered libertarian to see the value of
a little private-sector activity in the space sector: the prod of competition can only make
government space programmes better. It is downright embarrassing that Washington must
sit for lessons on markets at the knee of officials from a formerly communist nation. But
American officials need to look beyond their humiliation to see the potential here. Come on,
Nasa, snap to. Dollars can buy more of the right
JWR contributor Amity Shlaes is a columnist for Financial Times
. Her latest book is
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