Capitalists, and federal dollars, in space



On December 23, I came across this headline in Investor’s Business Daily: “SpaceX Rocket Is A Capitalist Triumph.” Like a rubber-necker driving by a car crash, I had to look at the story.

Here’s how it starts: “Free Markets: This week’s return of a rocket to its launch pad was a big deal, not only because it signals a new era in competitive space exploration but also because it shows a new generation how capitalism solves problems. Americans keep hoping for something spectacular from NASA but are disappointed. In recent years, in addition to ending the costly shuttle program and forcing our astronauts to hitch rides with the Russians to go into space, NASA has made “Muslim outreach” a top priority. That’s not much return for NASA’s $18 billion annual budget.”

I gagged on this load of…um, let’s just call it hyperbole. I couldn’t bring myself to blog about it on the day before Xmas Eve, so I’m doing it today. (Thanks to Dave Huntsman for his comment on the IBD story online, check it out.)

First, “capitalism solves problems.” Let me remind my readers that both SpaceX and Blue Origin – both owned by billionaires – have received substantial subsidies, followed by even more substantial contracts, from NASA – you know, the evil government.

I have no need to defend NASA. I do have a need to challenge the libertarian rhetoric that government is the problem and capitalism is the solution. Please. Both Musk and Bezos are outspoken libertarians.*

Second, “NASA has made ‘Muslim outreach’ a top priority”? I don’t think so. NASA has always played a role in achieving the administration’s foreign policy objectives (that’s why NASA was formed in the first place), and, yes, NASA has played some small role in the current administration’s outreach to the Muslim world.

IBD goes on: “the current battle between SpaceX founder Elon Musk and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, whose Blue Origin rocket safely landed in November, will bring big benefits to the American people — and, down the road, potentially huge profits to the entrepreneurs who create the rockets.”

What benefits will these rockets bring to “the American people?” Really, I want to know. And which “American people”? OK, jobs, for some. But the underlying assumption here seems to be that the goals, objectives, and values of Elon Musk/SpaceX and Jeff Bezos/Blue Origin are representative of the goals, objectives, and values of “the American people” – a wildly diverse population…. I am not convinced that a majority – or even a significant minority – of “American people” share Musk’s and Bezos’s dreams of colonizing outer space.

SpaceX and Blue Origin are in competition with established behemoths Lockheed Martin and Boeing and their joint venture United Launch Alliance, and the well established Orbital Sciences Corp.

According to Aeroweb, NASA’s top 100 contractors for fiscal year 2014 included:

  • Lockheed Martin at #2 ($1.7 billion);
  • Boeing at #3 ($1.4 billion);
  • Orbital Sciences Corp. (now Orbital ATK) at #4 ($666 million);
  • SpaceX at #6 ($483 million) – up from #7 in 2013; and
  • United Launch Alliance (Lockheed Martin-Boeing) at #9 ($365 million).

SpaceX is #98 ($497 million) on the U.S. government’s top 100 contractors list for FY 2014, according to Aeroweb (Lockheed Martin and Boeing are #1 and #2).

(An aside: Lockheed Martin president, chairman, and CEO Marilyn Hewson’s 2013 compensation was $25 million, according to the Washington Post. See for information on Lockheed Martin’s employee compensation scales – for example, $74,000 to $131,000, plus bonus, for a senior systems engineer. In an imaginary glorious capitalist future, when SpaceX has displaced Lockheed Martin as NASA’s #1 contractor, can we expect Elon Musk’s compensation to reach such heady heights? Then again, why should he care about his compensation? His personal net worth is now $12.7 billion, according to Forbes. He’s #38 on Forbes’s list of the world’s richest people.)

See my blog post of September 24 for other thoughts on the so-called “commercial space” boom.

* In November, I presented a paper at the annual meeting of the Society for Social Studies of Science, “Neoliberalism: the heart of U.S. civil space policy,” in which I argued that, if not articulated in actual policy documents, libertarian ideology is a driver of the current execution of civil space policy. The paper isn’t finished yet (when it is, I‘ll post it on this site). But here’s the abstract:

“In the journal Social Studies of Science, Rebecca Lave, Philip Murowski, and Samuel Randall urged fellow scholars of science, technology, and society “to undertake a detailed exploration of exactly how the external political-economic forces of neoliberalism are transforming technoscience.” This paper addresses the role of neoliberalism in the transformation of technoscience, specifically in U.S. civil space policy. Neoliberalism’s kissing cousin, American exceptionalism, has been at the heart of the ideology of human space flight since the United States created a space program in 1958. Until the end of the Cold War, keeping ahead of the Soviets was sufficient rationale for the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) costly human space flight program. Once the Cold War ended, neoliberalism came to the fore in advocacy, and policy, for human space flight.

While official national space policy documents are light on neoliberal rhetoric, other official statements – speeches by presidents and their appointees, advisory reports, and especially pronouncements by various human space flight advocacy groups – are more explicit in advocating for “free enterprise” and “unlimited growth” in space. Advocacy groups courted by NASA are most explicit, claiming in their mission statements that U.S. space policy should enable private property rights in space, unfettered private-sector exploitation of solar system resources, and colonization of other planetary bodies (Billings 2006, 2007). That these belief systems have been driving U.S. space exploration and development for so long, and continue to do so today, is disturbing.

Though certain efforts to “privatize” space flight began in the Carter administration, the Reagan administration was first to promote the so-called “commercialization” of space, touting the promise of space-based manufacturing and the commercial exploitation of extraterrestrial resources. The Obama administration, in rare concord with Congress, has embraced and turbocharged the neoliberal heart of national space policy, advancing billions of dollars in direct and indirect subsidies and billions more in contracts to so-called “commercial” space businesses, both established and new, and all well-heeled.

Pro-space neoliberals, libertarians, and Tea-Partiers continue to promote a space-colonization agenda on Capitol Hill and at the White House. A declaration produced at a “pioneering space national summit” in 2015 claims that “the long term goal of the human spaceflight and exploration program of the United States is to expand permanent human presence beyond low-Earth orbit and to do so in a way that will enable human settlement and a thriving space economy.” A new Alliance for Space Development has formed to execute this goal, including the Space Frontier Foundation and the Tea Party in Space.

Within the aerospace community, the ideology of space exploration is very seldom discussed. The same is true for the STS community. With this paper I hope to encourage further analysis. I will explore the ideology of space exploration by analyzing the rhetoric of policy makers and advocates.”

P.S. For further reading about capitalism and democracy, see E.J. Dionne’s opinion piece in today’s Washington Post, “Capitalists should listen to Bernie Sanders.” He argues that U.S. presidential candidates should be tackling these questions in their debates: “Are all the wealthy societies destined to become far more unequal, as they were in the late 19th century, because of globalization and technological change? Or can governments find new ways of ensuring a degree of justice and fairness?” (I agree.)

I believe that the answer to the first question is no – wealthy societies aren’t destined to be the way they are; they choose the way they want to be. We can be better, fairer. My answer to the second question is yes. We can. We should. But will we?


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