Does the North Korean rocket program deserve our scorn?
If it does, then all socialized and nationalized programs do.
Since the advent of rocketry as an amateur industry, hundreds of technicians and researchers have died trying to vault the political class – and their apparatchiks – of the US, Russia and others into orbit. The US Space Shuttle program blew up 14 astronauts. Four Soviet cosmonauts died due to a parachute malfunction and being exposed to the vacuum of space. During the 1960′s, ten more astronauts and cosmonauts died while training on the ground. And while I doubt even the most aggressive ambulance chasers would ever bring “involuntary manslaughter” lawsuits against these states this relatively small list of fatalities also shrouds the unseen, the enormous financial money pits that these programs amounted to.
The fact of the matter is, all national space programs amount to little more than face-projects that divert and misallocate productive capital. They look grand with chemical jazz hands and glittery sequins but accomplish little in the way of tangible, practical results. And even if they successfully conquered the final frontier, the Arachnids, Romulans or the green-men on Mars they did so with stolen booty from productive members of society. The ends do not justify the means.
Evangelists and popularizers like Phil Plait and Neil DeGrasse Tyson weep and moan over the defunding of NASA. Yet if success is measured by liberty, justice and profit, it is high time to give taxpayers their money back. If we were to inspire the next generation of youngins, why teach them to rob Peter the taxpayer to pay Paul the engineer? Instead, cut the umbilical from the Cape — privatize NASA’s assets and let private enterprises like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites try to eke out an existence without state largess. And at the end of the day if you cannot afford to take those journeys, why steal ducats from the rest of us that would rather save the money for our own purposes? That doesn’t sound like a fair deal for the 99% of us that are coerced to subsidize human exploration for the 1%. Yea, I just went there.
Not that it should matter but to preempt ad hominem I will point out that I heart cosmology. In fact, when I was recovering from my horrible Chinese gastroparesis last fall, I spent hours watching the series How the Universe Works. My favorite app on my phone is the vertigo-inducing constellations-through-the-floor from Google Sky. Many moons ago I even did my senior thesis on the X-15, the Air Force and NASA. Yet as both an exploration aficionado and free-market minded curmudgeon, there is no wiggle room for socialism in any industry, even if it provides voice over and narration opportunities for fancy pants officers from La Barre.
The Norks purportedly spent $850 million on their latest flaming piñata an amount that could reportedly feed 80% of its malnourished population with food for a year. And while fortunately no one (that we know of) was vaporizedover the East China sea, the Kim regime is arguably receiving a disproportionate amount of negative flack from all corners of the interwebs. It is not like the development of Redstone and Vostok were exactly flawless or cheap either…
What the North Korean space program really suffers from is that of PR. If only they had a friendly face like that of Tom Hanks to celebrate a total an utter failure, no one would be mocking them. Apollo 13 was a disaster at every level yet the spin doctors at NASA and at the White House turned the propaganda dial to eleven and managed to snooker three generations into believing that socialized space exploration should be endured. They managed to go above and beyond anything that the recruiting videos… err “movies” Top Gun or Act of Valor did for the US Navy and created a program whose legacy that remains seemingly untouchable. After all, everyone is an apologist for it, even Ayn Rand (who called Apollo 11 “a symbol of man’s greatness“)!
Despite cries from chicken little’s, aviation innovation did not stop with the ending of Apollo (which cost approximately $170 billion). Aviation innovation did not stop with the ending of the Shuttle program (which also cost about $170 billion). And aviation innovation will not stop when NASA loses funding for yet another albatross (all eyes on Orion). In fact, it will arguably free up a savings pool that is tied up in treasury bonds used to finance the current deficit. Or as Andrew Beal explained more than a decade ago, socialized space flight crowds out the market for private endeavors, like space hotels. After all, why risk and invest in a private program when the unwitting public already foots the bills for multiple government projects?
Nobody knows what the opportunity costs were and alternative histories that diverged due to state monopolization of aeronautical resources and human capital. So here’s to hoping that socialized space exploration goes the way of the dodo sooner rather than later. Or as a bumper sticker could say: stop subsidizing space piñatas.
See also: Iran Worried U.S. Might Be Building 8,500th Nuclear Weapon (The Onion)