The Privatization of Space Exploration: Business, Technology, Law, and Policy

By Terrell, Timothy D. | Libertarian Papers, March 2012 | Go to article overview

The Privatization of Space Exploration: Business, Technology, Law, and Policy


Terrell, Timothy D., Libertarian Papers


Lewis D. Solomon: The Privatization of Space Exploration: Business,

Technology, Law, and Policy. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers,

2008, ISBN: 978-1-4128-0759-3, 128 pages.

LEWIS D. SOLOMON'S BOOK The Privatization of Space Exploration, now available in a 2012 softcover printing, is an effort to survey the rapidly changing industry of private space flight and suggest ways to encourage it. It should be noted that the title is really a misnomer, as many of the functions handled by the private firms covered in this book are not exploration per se, but rather involve satellite launch equipment and services. The author envisions resource extraction and extensive manufacturing processes to be carried out in space in the future.

The author's intention to promote private enterprise in space, as opposed to the dominant government-run space programs, is appreciated. There are some inspiring stories of a few of the path-breaking entrepreneurial endeavors in the space industry, and the author is critical of NASA, the International Space Station, and some other expensive, government-run space efforts. However, the book falls short in a few places.

First, when listing his justifications for space exploration, he makes a problematic economic argument. "[N]ew spacecraft enterprises, new spaceports, and related businesses offer jobs for skilled workers," Solomon writes. Furthermore, "Space activity also generates economic growth and tax receipts" (p. 8). These supporting arguments ignore the important fact that jobs are not the goal of the economy. We want the output from jobs, not the jobs themselves. This distinction is important, because any policy that subsidizes an industry in the effort to make sure that the industry hires workers is inevitably promoting a misallocation of those workers' skills. Superseding market prices for labor means that the other industries that had a more productive use for those workers (maybe in space flight, maybe not) must forego those workers. This reduces economic growth. The tax revenue argument has more serious problems. Taxes simply extract value from individuals and transfer that value to a government-determined purpose. Solomon has not shown how the government's ability to tax space activity indicates anything about the relative usefulness of space activity as opposed to other kinds of human productivity. This comment is not central to the book, but may help explain Solomon's acceptance of certain limited government interventions on behalf of the industry.

Second, the author evidently has some lingering ideas about the role of government in establishing national goals that place this book outside a fairly broad concept of libertarianism. Solomon evidently would go beyond even the classical liberal conception of government as a referee of market disputes, or a source of collective defense against aggression. Government becomes the director of national goals: "Although the public outcry in the spring of 1961 was not as strident as it had been after the launch of Sputnik," Solomon argues, "something had to be done to recommit the nation to success in the space race" (p. 16). Why? Kennedy, and the author, apparently, saw the achievement of milestones in space exploration as a demonstration of the superiority of American society over that of the Soviets.

This is not to say that the book does not have great merit. Much of the book consists of a useful history of government and private space exploration and technological development. Solomon seems to favor prize-motivated innovation, and mentions some of the history of privately funded prizes. NASA's objections to privatizing space travel are evident in several places, including its opposition to the first civilian "space tourist," Dennis Tito, in 2001. Solomon is rightly critical of this, and of NASA's general approach to space exploration. The personal histories of some of the entrepreneurs involved in the private space launch industry are also interesting. …

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