This Space For Rent?

As Phil Plait already discussed on his blog, Barack Obama unveiled his plan for the NASA budget.

Phil is well-experienced and qualified to discuss the implications of the budget and I pretty much agree with everything he said.  In summation:
1) The Constellation Program was unready and overbudget and needed to be canned.

2) There is a tremendous increase in the budget that emphasizes science.
3) The functioning life span and scope-of-science of the ISS gets extended.
4) Private companies (such as Space X) will be able (it is planned) to launch humans into space before the existing shuttle program is retired....meaning that there will be an uninterrupted flow of people being sent to space, without having to pay the Russians or the Chinese for a lift.
5) The Moon and Mars plans are, once again, a huge question mark.

There is one thing that Phil left out of his analysis, and it's a decidedly political angle.  Yes, Phil did talk about the Congress and the right-wingers that lay within who will probably mangle the proposed budget to within an inch of its life, but I'm not talking about partisan politics here, as valid as that discussion may be.  There is more to politics than a partisan angle: there is an issue of political economy to this budget that I find a mite-bit distressing.

Commodification of Space?  Maybe...


What is commodification?  In short, it is the process by which a *thing* gets transformed into a commodity.  The *thing* (a good or a service) in the process of commodification may or may not be traditionally considered a sellable or tradeable commodity.  In other words: taking a free (or absurdly cheap) thing, and turning it into a piece of property to be bought and sold.

Just about anything can, and has been, commodified:
Damage to the environment? Check. A company can literally buy and sell the ability to pollute.
Your own health? Check.  Think about how many people can't afford to see a doctor in the United States.  I won't bother providing any links in this regard.  Hopefully, you all know full-well that as it is today, access to good health is not a right but a privilege in the United States (and the situation is getting worse in Canada, but that's the topic for another post).
Land? Check.  Think about that for a moment: the very earth you walk on is owned by someone else.
Air?  Check.  Didn't think that someone would have the audacity to sell you the air that you breathe, huh? Right now, it's a pretty harmless flight-of-fancy for the worried-well and the worried-rich, but I wonder what will happen when/if our air becomes too toxic to breathe safely (pure speculation, I'll freely admit).
Water? Check. The commodification of water has had a particularly sobering effect in Latin America, where bottling companies have been hard at work trying to get the local governments to make it illegal for citizens to have access to drinkable water that is not produced by their company.  It sounds absurdly unlikely, doesn't it? But Bechtel tried it in Bolivia, (where it would have been illegal to even collect rainwater!) and other companies tried it in various parts of the United States.  In all water-commodification cases (that I could find) the efforts have failed (do to popular opposition, or in the case of Bolivia: armed revolt and violence), but I have little doubt that some company somewhere will heartily convince a government that only their corporate water should be made legal.

My friends, the invisible hand of the "free market" will not only gently nudge you into capitalist complacency, but it will also strangle you for every dime it can. 

What does this have to do with the Budget?

Maybe nothing, and I certainly hope so.  But....

The cost of sending anything into space is, well...astronomical.  Just sending a single litre of water costs $11,000!  Ostensibly, having a private space industry that is capable of heavy lifting could be seen as a way to download the costs of lift, which then would free up funds that NASA could then dedicate to science (especially at the ISS and for space telescopes).  This may be where the story ends, and I hope it does:  I'm all for a government/civilian partnership when it comes to space exploration/habitation, especially if it means that we (and by "we", I'll remind that the Canadian Space Agency is intimately tied to NASA) won't have to rely on partnerships with less-than-friendly states that have similar capacity (Russia, China).

However, due to the axing of Constellation and the Ares programs (however scientifically necessary it may have been to do so), there is currently no-clear indication of when the NASA will have its own means to get people into space again.  The idea of having a private company as being the only American resource for heavy-lifting into orbit is a little unsettling in this light.  If the private companies continue to offer human-to-space travel for cheap to the government (NASA), what motivation will the government have to start its own program?  I'm sure that NASA will try and figure out new ways to send people into space, but without that fire under their ass (ha!), NASA is not exactly known for doing things it doesn't immediately have to.



The reason why this is important is because NASA, though it is civilian-operated, is still part of the government, which makes it owned by the tax-payers.  It is directly accountable to the President, Congress, and the citizens who are footing the bill.  The good thing about having a public space program is that it *can* operate at a financial loss, because the government can bring other financial sources to bear in order to fund it.  NASA is not a private company, and so its motivations and aims are meant to benefit the United States of America.

Space X, however, as admirable and groundbreaking a company as they may be (and they deserve tremendous credit for their engineering success, and I truly wish them well), they are a private corporation.  This means two very important things need to be discussed: 1) They are accountable not to civilians, but to their shareholders, and 2) Since they are accountable to the shareholders, what happens if the company starts to operate at a loss?  They will have to make, and maintain a profitable space-industry. And that, my friends, is how the commodification of space begins.

Space X can easily increase the bill for sending anything up into space, and what is NASA going to do? Use their own vehicles? Nope, they'll be long dead and buried.  Ask the Russians or the Chinese?  Better hope they don't charge through the nose either, and that their vehicles are safe! Space X would have unprecedented private access to low-earth orbit, and there would be next-to-nothing preventing them from using their rockets to appease their shareholders who only exist to see profit (and could care less about science or progress).  I'm not suggesting that the U.S. would let Space X use their rockets for military purposes (the militarization of space is currently illegal by both international and U.S. law), but the U.S. government would be helpless to prevent whatever privatization and surveillance endeavors that Space X decided to rent their rockets out to.

I kind of expect that most of this apparent doom-and-gloom will not come to fruition.  But I think it's important to compare a two-tiered space program with an increasingly two-tiered health program in Canada.  Private health clinics can charge whatever they want, and they can pay their doctors whatever they want.  If you need to see a doctor for a non-emergency (especially a mental health issue), you could spend your life-savings to see a private specialist, or you could sit on a 2-year waiting list to see a specialist in the public sector.  Private clinics are sapping away the specialists from the majority of Canadians who can't afford private health care, resulting in a specialist shortage.  This means long waiting lists (the doctors are, in effect, abandoning the poor in favour of the rich), and healthcare is mainly reserved for those who can afford a private clinic (which is not most of us). 

Similarly, if for-profit corporations (which is, all corporations) can charge whatever they want for their services (and if they're the only ones launching loads and people into space, they certainly will charge whatever they want.....no pretense of free-market competition applies here), they can also pay whatever they want.  I don't think it's too unreasonable to assume that with the promise of huge paychecks, they may lure in a large number of former-NASA scientists and engineers, furthering NASA's problems.

I think it is reasonable to assume that with the increasingly unequal power and capability balance being tilted in favor of private interests, the access of the general public and of science will take a tremendous back-seat, favoring those means which show a hefty return.  Space itself will be effectively owned and operated by companies not entirely unlike Haliburton, Coca-Cola, Bechtel or Monsanto.

Believe me, I really hope I'm wrong here.  But history shows that when a for-profit system is pitted against a non-profit government entity with fewer resources, the people never win: money does.  I honestly don't know if I want this budget to pass: the long-term, big picture costs may simply be too great.

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