The Space Between Daniel Ust's Ears

According to Daniel C. Ust, all space lies open for exploitation, if only “government gets out of the way.” Strange to say, Ust never mentions a single respect in which government is in the way. The mere fact that the government has a space program if its own does not prevent private enterprise from going into space, any more than the mere fact that the government delivers mail prevents Federal Express or UPS from doing profitable business.

If NASA is as costly and inefficient as Ust says (and it is), and space is as rich in opportunity as Ust says (not so obvious), why aren’t the entrepreneurs moving into space on their own, as capitalist economics say they should? Who’s stopping them?

Ust laments that NASA will likely not purchase cost-cutting shuttle technology from a private firm, External Tanks Corp. Ust purports to be an anarchist and a free-market libertarian. What’s anarchist or libertarian about angling for a government contract?

Of course a for-profit space business would have to pay taxes, secure various permits and abide by various regulations — but so do all businesses. Ust is welcome to agree with me in lamenting these facts (his laments will likely resound more loudly than mine), but however inconvenient or immoral Ust regards these impediments, they don’t foreclose enterprise absolutely — not unless the enterprise was precarious to begin with. Indeed, to exempt the space business from the ordinary burdens other businesses bear amounts to a subsidy for the space business — in which case how would it be any different from NASA?

Another point: American businesses which feel unduly impeded in operating within our borders don’t hesitate to take their business elsewhere. That’s what NAFTA is all about. I don’t know how many states there are in the world right now — 150? 160? — but there must be more than a few which will allow pretty much anything for a reasonable price. The Bahamas, for instance, encourages, the laundering of drug money through its banks; and it includes hundreds of uninhabited islands in the same latitude as Cape Canaveral. Surely it would accept, and probably welcome, a Bahamas-based space program.

Then again there are all the bankrupt ex-Communist countries. Since Ust has no problem with private companies selling space tech to a government, he should have no problem with a government — say, Russia’s — selling space tech to a private company. Russia still has the remnants of a space program, and it has plenty of facilities and trained personnel. Why reinvent the hammer and sickle?

It is all too obvious that Daniel Ust’s admiration for capitalism is in inverse proportion to his knowledge of how it works. Business is not, as such, antigovernment, and government is not, as such, anti-business. They clash from time to time, but then so do businesses with businesses, and governments with governments. They are the same kind of animal: they are predators. Their prey: all the rest of us.

These are just the obvious idiocies in Ust’s dogmatics. It is well to take a step back to ponder the larger meaning of this kind of ideological posturing. Ust adduces, as an advantage of private-sector space business, that on earth, pollution will eventually go down, etc. Sure, just like NAFTA means that the USA exports its pollution problem to Mexico. No need to change our ways. As Robert Heinlein put it, “We’ve used this planet up, let’s get another one.” After this planet, this solar system, after that — you get the idea. Meanwhile the whole assumption — that you can soil your own nest since you can always find another one — is already, literally, crashing down on our heads. The junk we’ve put into orbit for the last 30 years is already falling back, and though it is statistically improbable that what reaches the Earth will do any damage, what will be the public reaction when it eventually does? More important, the junk still in orbit is already a hazard to putting more junk in orbit. What business will find it profitable to clean up (at a cost of billions) all the space rubbish which already endangers anything newly put up there?

We can no longer solve our problems by shipping them off somewhere else, to Mexico, to Mars, to anywhere. The place to solve them is here. The time to solve them is now. There is no salvation in any imaginary futuristic techno-fix. It’s never worked before, and there’s no reason to think it ever will.

We have to break with the whole exploitation orientation. To cease to exploit other people, and to cease to exploit nature itself (including inanimate nature). Once we have straightened out these urgent matters, then — and only then — should we consider whether, when and how to move off-planet. The Universe can wait. It has all the time in the world. We don’t.

Daniel Ust’s response