Beaver pelts, communication satellites, and space exploration
by Taylor Dinerman
|The satellite communications industry is in an economic situation similar to the one in which the mountain men of the 1840s found themselves: they can make a precarious living leasing transponders, but they are facing serious competition.|
NASA is having a hard time giving up on its monopoly but, in US history, it is nothing new for government entities to try and hang on to power long after their original purposes were long ago fulfilled. The Great Plains are filled with US Army bases whose existence owes more to 19th century patterns of settlement than to any 21st century strategic requirements. The role of the US military on America’s western frontier is still controversial, but it did facilitate the settlement process and imposed order on what was, at times, a very messy process.
Before the US cavalry arrived in the West, a small group of courageous entrepreneurs were already busy harvesting beaver pelts and trading with the indigenous tribes. The mountain men were the first representatives of Western civilization to actually make a living in the hard and unforgiving environment of the 19th century West. Those who object to this analogy often point out that, at least, the frontiersman could breath the air and eat deer and buffalo meat. This is true, but they could only live off the land, and do business at the same time, because they had the tools of civilization to help them—in particular, guns.
Today, the satellite communications industry is in an economic situation similar to the one in which the mountain men of the 1840s found themselves. They can make a precarious living leasing transponders, but they are facing serious competition from land based communications systems, such as fiber optic cables and soon, perhaps, lasers. There is also the fact that many nations regard satellite manufacturing as a strategic industry, and are willing to support economically unviable projects in order to build up their national expertise. In fact, communications satellites for civilian applications might become completely obsolete in a couple of decades, but nations will still want to maintain the capacity to build them for military purposes.
|The government can find ways to support space colonization without over-regulating the pioneers. It cannot allow itself to treat every future space habitat as if it were a military base.|
Widespread commercialization in space activity may have to wait until the government and investors find some way to build a low cost, reliable way to get from the Earth’s surface to orbit in the same way that widespread settlement of the West had to wait until the railroads arrived. Those railroads were not the products of an ultra-pure capitalist, risk taking investment, but were the product of a number of messy, and often corrupt, deals between the government and the railroad companies.
Solving the access to space problem will be similarly messy. (One hopes it will be far less corrupt.) The government can find ways to support space colonization without over-regulating the pioneers. It cannot allow itself to treat every future space habitat as if it were a military base. Building a permanent base on the Moon is the obvious first step. President Bush’s proposals are a step in the right direction, but they are just one step. The plan needs to be carefully examined and the details need to be properly explained. However, this cannot be an excuse for inaction. It is always easy to find reasons to perform one more study or to demand one more set of documents. Congress should begin fully funding the program this year. Otherwise, the project will probably sink into the same swamp that has swallowed so many other ambitious ideas. The US could end up losing its place at the forefront of space science and technology, with serious negative implications for American military power.