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Public or Private: How to Save NASA

By Leah Krombach | Position Paper

The United States was the first country to put a man on the Moon, and ever since then NASA, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, has been a beacon of hope for the American people. However, there is a current debate about privatization of the United Space Agency.  Regardless whether or not it is privatized, it will continue to face significant problems.   NASA is a huge organization with an even bigger budget, but it produces no revenue to sustain itself.   Privatization of the governmental agency would mean transferring the program from the public sector, which is controlled by the government and supported by the taxpayers, into the private sector, where NASA could get all its funding from corporations.   The space agency would then have to be split up into multiple small private entities which would run on profit and NASA as we know it today would cease to exist.  NASA cannot be abolished because the American people would lose an agency that holds historical significance.  It would also set back scientific progress and be disastrous for national security.  However, even if the agency became more efficient with its spending there is not enough money to fund all its needs.  Therefore NASA should partially privatize by turning over low space orbit activities to the private sector, and focus on deep space exploration.

When I was in twelfth grade I got to experience first hand why NASA could not keep functioning the way it had been. When I started working at NASA’s JPL, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Southern California, my mentor Gabriel decided the first thing we would do was to go on a tour of the campus and look at all the projects that JPL was working on.  We walked inside a building that looked like an airplane hanger, to see a ten foot tall machine resembling a spider. I looked at Gabriel with surprise and asked, “What in the world is that?”  He smiled and replied it is ATHLETE, which stands for All-Terrain Hex-Legged Extra-Terrestrial Explorer.  Still not fully understanding what it was, I asked him to explain further. He said that it was the newest lunar rover NASA had in production.  He went on to explain that an astronaut would sit in a circular module on top of the six legged machine, which would be lined with a circular screen to give the astronaut a 360 degree view of the outside planet from the comfort of a seat in the module.  He said this is just a prototype, and that it’s been in the production and testing phase for years. 

I saw Gabriel was saddened by this statement, so I asked him how long it usually took for an idea to be made into something that could actually be sent into space.  He said it could take ten years or more for something to get off the drawing board and go through testing until it could be completed and sent into space.  I then asked him why it took so long. He replied that usually the deal breaker was that NASA had to wait for funding to come from the government, even when the design was finalized. Gabriel noted that a lot of projects do not even get funding for prime time after years of work.  Funding could be delayed many times, or NASA would have to wait for the next time the government would allocate a new technology grant.  He said he even had a project he was working on years ago that the government promised it would fund but cut funding at the last moment.  He said there are so many great ideas at JPL, so much they could do, but there is just not enough money to do it all.  It was this experience that led me to realize that NASA needed reform.

NASA holds a great historical significance to the American people and this would be lost if NASA was privatized.   NASA’s Mission Statement is, “To improve life here, To extend life to there, To find life beyond” (Lopez).  Since its creation in 1958, NASA has been doing just this.  NASA was there to race the Soviets to the Moon and bring security to the American people since they viewed the Soviet Union as a threat during the Cold War.  Almost every American knows the famous words of astronaut Neil Armstrong as he first stepped onto the Moon in 1969: “That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”  During the current major recession, NASA remains an indisputable positive symbol of the government that the American people can look up to and think highly of, while many other parts of the government are not held in such a positive light.  If NASA was privatized, the American people would lose a federal agency of historic significance and a positive part of their culture that the government made possible.

NASA is also essential to the American people because it has produced significant advancements in technology that private corporations could not.  In the annual journal Spinoff, NASA showcases all the technological advancements it has commercialized.  NASA has brought us scratch resistant lenses, personal alarm systems, virtual reality, solar energy, Teflon and many other now commonly used technologies that the American people do not even realize NASA invented (Spinoff).  The agency has also been conducting pure scientific research that has no commercial value, but nevertheless benefits humanity.  NASA conducts research on protein crystals in zero gravity since gravity can interfere with the crystal growth process.  These protein crystals are crucial to the treatment of diabetes, cancer and heart disease research, and this would not be possible if the crystals were grown on Earth (Boen).  NASA also funded the Hubble Space Telescope, a visible and infrared telescope, which has permitted vital advancements in our understanding of deep space astronomy. The Hubble Space Telescope has helped prove the existence of dark energy and the age of the universe.  Ed Weiler, the associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington said, "Hubble is undoubtedly one of the most recognized and successful scientific projects in history," (HubbleSite). The Hubble Space Telescope has now been in orbit for twenty years and has been producing priceless pictures making it NASA’s longest lived and best recognized project (HubbleSite).  The Hubble Space Telescope website now has the option for any American to post a facebook or twitter message to the telescope, and have their communication sent to the telescope and saved in Hubble’s archives just like the rest of the images.  The website is also filled with interactive trivia, fun facts and photos from the telescope that are available to the public. There would be no benefit for a private company to do this, because it involves giving back to the people, without any profit.  Since NASA is not in the private sector it has been able to fund research in lifesaving technologies and many knowledge advancing projects without having to focus on making a profit.  This is another reason why NASA cannot be privatized.

A very big issue with respect to NASA losing jurisdiction over space is the potential for power to fall into the wrong hands.  Bruce S. Lemkin, Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force for International Affairs states, “Our partner air forces understand the value of air and space power and its effective [use] against the broad range of threats we will encounter in the coming years” (Lemkin 1).  Lemkin shows us how the threat of space terrorism is already a real factor in day to day life because we are already taking steps to be prepared for it.  At the moment, NASA controls all spacecraft and satellites that Americans send up into space, and it is in contact with all other nations on what they send up into space.  This governing power NASA has would be lost if it was privatized. Things like space-based strike weapons would be a real threat according to the Space Security Index, an annual assessment of space security (Jaramillo 2).   Nowadays the war on terror is in the spotlight and on every American’s mind.  Therefore, it is very important to the American people to be as prepared as possible for any instance of terrorism.  If NASA was privatized it would lose this power over outer space, and it would open up the opportunity for space terrorism to occur.

Although continued survival of NASA is essential for the reasons stated above, it cannot stay afloat the way it is currently operating. Even if NASA eliminated waste, fraud and abuse, and ran a more efficient space program by prioritizing programs and getting rid of the ones that eat up the budget, it would not be enough.  In the end, Congress, which authorizes and appropriates a certain amount of money to NASA yearly to fund all its projects, has the ability to cut NASA’s funding at any time, and they do so because of the country‘s massive debt.  The United States has fallen into a recession and the government has to fund hundreds of agencies who all need more money yearly; there is just not enough money to go around.  Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama stated in a press conference, “If this budget is enacted, NASA will no longer be an agency of innovation and hard science. It will be the agency of pipe dreams and fairy tales" (Shelby). Senator Shelby warns that if NASA’s budget keeps getting cut, the agency will not be able to perform all of its scientific advancement, and there would be no point having NASA around at all.  NASA needs to find a way to continue functioning by cutting back more of its programs.

NASA should delegate low space orbit to the private sector, and therefore be partially privatized. William Watson, the Executive Director of the Space Frontier Foundation makes this same point when he states, “Our government space program has become over-burdened with too many objectives, and not enough cash. Allowing private companies to handle routine orbital duties could free up NASA to focus on returning to the moon and going to Mars” (Dinerman). William Watson makes it clear that NASA should turn over some of its power to the private sector but still retain the things it could really do research in and are the best at, namely deep space exploration.  The private sector would not want to be involved in deep space exploration because there is no commercial value, and the private sector does not have the luxury of doing this.  NASA can because it is funded by the government and is a not for profit organization, and therefore it has to do it.   NASA has been making tremendous advancements that reach to the edges of our galaxy.  These include the highly publicized Hubble Space Telescope and many other deep space and interstellar satellites.  If NASA allows the private sector to take over low earth orbit activities, it would free resources and save the United States taxpayers’ money (Stadd and Bingham 243).

Precedence has been set for this exact idea by President Obama’s new plan for NASA.  President Obama recently stated in the NASA 2011 Budget report, “NASA’s attempts to pursue its moon goals, while inadequate to that task, had drawn funding away from other NASA programs, including robotic space exploration, science, and Earth observations” (Obama).  President Obama cancelled Project Constellation, which was supposed to build new rockets and spacecraft to return American astronauts back to the Moon.  NASA had already spent $9.1 billion on this program, and President Obama shut it down because he concluded it was wasting too much money without achieving significant scientific advancements, and siphoning funds away from other vital NASA programs (Harwood).   This leaves a huge void that the private sector can fill by sending astronauts into space and creating more fuel efficient shuttles and spacecraft to transport civilians into space (Chang). 

The private sector is ready to take on the needs that NASA can no longer fulfill because of budget cuts.  An example of a private company is Virgin Galactic, who recently announced that its SpaceShipTwo will be ready shortly to take civilians, whom they call astronauts, into low earth orbit for the “small” price of $200,000.  SpaceShipTwo will be ready to go into space commercially within the next few years (  SpaceShipOne, which fueled the SpaceShipTwo project, actually won the Ansari X Prize in 2004.  This ten million dollar prize was awarded to the first non-governmental organization that launched a reusable manned spacecraft into space two times within two weeks.  The whole point of this competition was to encourage the building of reusable cheap spacecraft by the private sector (  There are many other private companies making advancements in space technology, and if NASA would partially privatize and give up low space orbit activities, many more companies like Virgin Galactic would immediately pop up to fill the void.

Given the overwhelming evidence that suggests that privatization of NASA is illogical, NASA should not be privatized at this time.  However, NASA cannot keep functioning the way it has been, because of yearly budget cuts from Congress.  Instead, NASA should relinquish low space orbit activities to the private sector, and focus on deep space exploration.  We need to raise awareness about the issues facing NASA and be open to the idea of partial privatization and the greater involvement of the private sector in the United States space program.  Congress needs to be more open to partial privatization and not just write it off.  This needs to happen so people like Gabriel who have worked at NASA for many years, will be able see their projects finalized and put to use.  An appropriate workable combination of the private and public sector activities is the future of the United States space program.



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