Space: the free market’s final frontier

Space may be big, but there's no room for bureaucrats and intergovernmental agencies, argues Waldemar Ingdahl, director of the free market think tank Eudoxa in Stockholm.

On the night of December 8th Christer Fuglesang will become the first Swede in space, when he travels on the American space shuttle Discovery to the International Space Station (ISS).

The Celsius mission (named after the 18th century Swedish astronomer) raises the question of whether a sustainable space program is possible. After all, Sweden was beaten to manned spaceflight by nations like Mongolia, Vietnam and Afghanistan, all of which sent up personnel with roughly the same mission as Fuglesang’s: to do some research and to generate a lot of PR.

Fuglesang will become a member of a club that is a bit too exclusive; he will become just the 455th person in space since Yuri Gagarin.

In comparison with the airplane, which trained 1,000 new pilots between 1908 and 1910 alone, space flight seems to have stalled. We have not seen many of the bright promises of the 1960s fulfilled. The massive resources of space, like minerals and abundant energy lie unused.

NASA and the European Space Agency have seen budgetary problems, failed missions and the development of complex bureaucracies.

Space flight was developed during the Cold War in the space race between the US and the USSR. The later space programs have been modelled after the Apollo-program, and thus did not develop with issues such as costs, feasible returns to investments, or efficiency in mind. Organizations and infrastructure are inadequate for a sustainable growth of space development.

The problems have also dampened the general public’s enthusiasm for space, and Fuglesang’s voyage does little to change this. It is difficult to enjoy a “big science” project with little direct benefit for your life.

There is hope if we change our point of view.

“Space is a place, not a program” to quote the slogan of the American space movement. If we move away from the “big science” projects of the national space agencies, to a free market perspective, we see many new ventures for space.

Satellites, for example, have long been profitable, ever since the TelStar was launched in 1962, with a substantial number of small shareholders that started to receive dividends already in 1970.

The public is willing to invest in space, if it sees realistic opportunities. Sweden has long been prominent in satellite building, and with the introduction of the new microsatellites it can become affordable for many more to use satellites. Satellites are vital in telecommunications, and enable the orbital analysis of forestry, agriculture, ecology and oceans.

Even a trivial application such as GoogleEarth, building maps from orbit images, shows that experiments provide new commercial applications.

Space tourism has developed from its beginning as a play-ground of the ultra-rich. Richard Branson is now starting up Virgin Galactic, offering space flights from Kiruna at the price of 1.5 million kronor a ticket.

This creates a feasible business model to bring space flight from national effort to regular airline. The space effort must grow from the many ideas of entrepreneurs and innovators. NASA and ESA could lease out parts of the ISS to private entrepreneurs and allow space tourists to visit, instead of closing them out as today.

One good example of how to promote innovators are prize contests, such as the X-prize. When many are able to compete on equal terms on solving a specific task, new solutions are found.

The X-prize was given to a specialized spacecraft solving the problem of the high cost of getting objects into orbit. By comparison, the contractors of big projects often become adverse to risks. ESA may be known to innovate, but such innovations are often the result of costly lobbying from European industries.

Microsatellites, space tourism and prize competitions may not be as glamorous as Fuglesang in space, but they capitalize better on our conditions and engage people in building feasible business models for space.

That would open up space for us all, and hopefully Christer Fuglesang will just be the first of a long line of Swedes in space.

Waldemar Ingdahl