by Rod D. Martin
January 15, 2007

The Houston Chronicle reports that one casualty of the GOP’s kicking of all the continuing resolutions into 2007 is NASA.  Senators had worked out a deal to increase the NASA budget by $1 billion, allowing continuation of vital research programs (scramjets included) and current manned ops, but also permitting needed — and urgent — development of the manned craft and launch vehicles which must replace the aging and increasingly dangerous Space Shuttle fleet.  Even if that work stays on its planned schedule, something which is far from certain under the best of circumstances, the U.S. is scheduled for a four-year gap during which it will have NO ability to launch humans into space.  Meantime, the Russian program rolls on, and the Chinese plan landings and colonies on the Moon.

We support the President’s space plans, as I wrote at some length here when he announced them. America needs a robust space program for a long list of reasons, defense among them but far from primary; and many aspects of what America needs to do in space are things which require a certain degree (in some cases a very high degree) of government involvement.  We accept that.

But this does not make space immune to the same laws of nature to which everything else is subject.  Government may be necessary, but if you get it involved in anything, the result is almost always worse than if you hadn’t.  And likewise, private citizens almost always race ahead of anything government can do if government will just get out of the way.

Sir Richard Branson is one of many men (Jeff Bezos the most obvious recent example) now pioneering space.  Like my PayPal colleague Elon Musk, these guys are going to open the Final Frontier in ways NASA can only dream of (and in fact, NASA plans to rely on Elon to get astronauts and cargo to the Space Station while its own program goes on hiatus).  Motivated by adventure and profit, they truly will go where no man has gone before; if, of course, we work to remove the legal barriers which, though greatly lessened by Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, still remain in their way.

Advocates of big government always point to the Manhattan Project as the counterexample; and perhaps they have a point if your aim is to blow things up.  But their other chief exhibits fall flat:  the transcontinental railroad, though enabled by government subsidy, was built by private corporations; and the Apollo project led America to a dead-end, in which America fulfilled its political aims and immediately abandoned all it had gained, a foundation for a truly spacefaring nation which, in private hands, would have changed everything and brought untold wealth to the entire world.

Now, men like Branson, Bezos and Musk are playing catchup, reclaiming that lost world. NASA will play a part, of course, and it must.  But as in every field of human endeavor from building Boonesboro to inventing the iPhone, the real action is with the pioneers, the entrepreneurs, the men and women who risk greatly and spend themselves in the pursuit of magnificence.

They’re the ones to keep your eye on.  And they’re creating the future, today.