The Pessimist’s Guide to Private Spaceflight

Accidents happen, but accidents happen to some institutes more than others. Russian rockets blew up more than American ones; Indonesian airliners crash more than Chinese ones. It took NASA 26 years of space flight to have a lethal in-flight accident like Virgin Galactic just had. To my knowledge, they’ve also never had a rocket explode during testing that killed three employees. This entire sector began with the request that NASA and the FAA not look over the shoulders of the private sector; that Richard Branson be allowed to be the ultimate arbiter of whether or not his toy was safe enough for passengers.

As was witnessed in Virginia the day before the tragedy over the Mohave, this isn’t just about Virgin Galactic. This about privatizing something that had been exclusively government-run for a long time. This is about ideology that assumes market forces will make everything right, ‘self-correct’, because it would be unprofitable to build dangerous spaceships and rockets. This is about a mode of transportation that’s so inherently dangerous that it maybe should only be left to a maddeningly slow and inefficient bureaucracy that cares more about moving through checklists than cool new designs.

We’re in charter school territory now. In so much as manned space flight is important, it’s been given up as a public sector service and we’ve handed the keys to untested companies that are growing a bad track record. The costs of this mistake will be externalized in one of three ways: (a) the sector is sustained through corporate welfare, with a mix of regulations and subsidies to offset compliance, (b) the sector collapses when investors realize how bad their bets are and we need to rebuild a now badly broken NASA, or (c) we simply accept more explosions and death, likely at a higher price, than before as the new reality of space travel.

If it’s anything like education, we’ll charge deeper in this direction for a decade not just in spite of the early warning signs, but because of them. Because Soyuz is still flying and NASA still launches their own rockets, the sector isn’t private and lucrative enough. The only way to ‘prove’ or let privatization of space flight work (or health care, fire departments, schools, garbage collection) is to completely break its public competitors.

Which is where we are with education: a public sector being picked apart by vultures, a private sector breathed into life with suspended regulation and subsidies yet unable to meet its original quality or cost goals, and people paying more for worse service than they had before. The spiral grows larger because neither politicians nor the public can admit the original sexy model just doesn’t work like it was supposed to.

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