OpEd: What if…?

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  Space News Business

OpEd: What if…?

By BOB WERB

posted: 06 December 2005
04:50 pm ET


I’m a real estate developer. I live my life firmly grounded in the probable and ignore the improbable. Sometimes, however, it is useful to suspend disbelief and engage in a thought exercise. Used correctly, “what if” can unshackle our thinking and lead to pragmatic solutions that would not be found otherwise. For example, I may invest a fair amount of energy asking, “What sort of shopping center would I build on a particular site if I wasn’t constrained by zoning,” even though I know that the zoning is here to stay, because the effort may well be rewarded with ideas that can actually be implemented.

I’m thinking that it just might be useful to do the same thing for America’s civil space enterprise and here is my scenario.

A new president picks up the phone and gives me a call: “Bob, I’ve decided that I want to make opening the space frontier to human settlement a key goal of my administration. I know I’ll need to expend significant political capital to make this happen. What should I do?” I’m stunned. I take a deep breath. The silence on the phone becomes uncomfortable.

“Mrs. President, I’m so honored that you called me,” I mumble as I gather my thoughts. “We need to begin with a discussion of goals. You say that you want ‘to make opening the space frontier to human settlement a key goal,’ but I need to understand if you also want to embrace any of the many other goals floating around the space community. For example…”

She interrupts and instructs: “My other goals have nothing to do with space. Settlement is my only space goal. I have no problem with people who want to use space to increase national prestige, planetary defense, environmental monitoring or even for ‘jobs in my district.’ But, these are not my goals. My goal is opening the space frontier to human settlement,” she repeats. “Pay attention and stay focused.”

I obey: “If that is the goal then the strategy should be to stimulate the growth of a robust, competitive cis-lunar economy.”

“And, cis-lunar means … everything this side of Luna?”

“Maybe it would be better to say the Earth, its Moon and everything in between.”

Somehow I feel her smile come through the phone. “Much better, continue.”

Again, I obey. “We’re going to need legislation — a new NASA act and perhaps …,” I say.

“Already in the works. Go on.”

“We need to deal with some significant legacy problems,” I continue. “First we need to spin off all non-space activities. Second, we need to privatize all functions at all of the NASA centers. Third, we need to dramatically increase the economic expertise of the space agency.” I hear her tapping on her keyboard, making notes. My courage increases. “Only by unleashing the power of free enterprise can we have any re …”

Again she cuts me off. “I don’t want to hear any libertarian bull about the elegance and beauty of free market capitalism. Come on Bob. You and I have each spent over 25 years building our own businesses. We know from personal experience that the real marketplace is neither beautiful nor elegant. It’s a really nasty place full of sadism, lying, cheating, greed, envy and hate. The only thing really going for it is that it works pretty well. If I knew of an economic system that worked even half as well as free market capitalism but allowed for lifetime employment, bosses who were caring and supportive and personal fulfillment for every worker, I’d endorse it enthusiastically.”

“OK,” I admit. “There are tens of thousands of talented, dedicated, hardworking people at and around the existing NASA centers and adjusting to the harsh realities of the 21st century economy after a career shielded from them is going to be a serious problem. I suggest that each and every one of them be given a large pile of cash on their way out the door.” Again, the sound of a keyboard. “Some will, no doubt, simply take the money and retire. I don’t know. Maybe, buy that boat they’ve always wanted. Others will simply leave aerospace and never look back.”

I press on. “Some will start new companies to compete in the emerging cis-lunar Some of those will become fantastically wealthy. Some will go bankrupt. Some will go to work for those who become fantastically wealthy; some will go to work for those who go bankrupt. Some will find the stress of the modern economy more than they can bear. Some will face the indignity of long-term unemployment.”

Again I seem to hear that famous smile beaming through the phone as she replies: “Surely if we release your ‘power of free enterprise’ we will also unleash Schumpeter’s ‘creative destruction.’ Within a very few years every public-sector job that was eliminated will be replaced by many private-sector jobs and the growth will continue geometrically from there.”

PRIVATE tabstops:<*t(4.500,0,” “,)> “Undoubtedly,” I agree. “But you know better than I the kind of sad stories of failure that the press will love to tell.”

“Leave that to me. Let’s talk about the mix of policies needed to … ,” she pauses and reads from her notes, “stimulate the growth of a robust, competitive cis-lunar economy.”

We spend the next 20 minutes discussing prizes, data purchases, zero gravity, zero tax, transferable tax credits, accommodative and efficient regulation, and property rights often to that wonderful sound of her keyboard and conclude with a brief update on our respective children and grandchildren.

Bob Werb is co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation and currently serving as its Chairman of the Board.