Wednesday, April 14, 2010

NASA and the BBC

'I’VE BEEN A DEFENDER OF OBAMA’S NEW SPACE POLICY, but Neil Armstrong thinks I’m wrong. “The first man to walk on the moon blasted President Barack Obama’s decision to cancel NASA’s back-to-the-moon program on Tuesday, saying that the move is ‘devastating’ to America’s space effort. . . . The letter was released to NBC News just two days in advance of Obama’s trip to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for a space policy summit. Obama is expected to flesh out his vision for the space agency’s future during his speech at the summit. . . . Armstrong and his fellow astronauts emphasize the bigger implications, however, and say in their letter that the decision would put the nation on a ‘long downhill slide to mediocrity.”'

I see this debate through the prism of the BBC. The BBC is an agency of the British government with some bureaucratic paraphenalia intended to mask the fact that it is an agency of the British government.

NASA is likewise an agency of the US Federal government.

What is the impact of these enormous, publicly funded agencies?

They totally dominate their respective industries, sucking up much of the available talent, distorting the marketplace and using the deep pockets of the public to create insuperable barriers to entry for that marketplace.

I have a problem with the lefty slant of the BBC, but that is only ten percent of why I want the BBC broken up and privatised. The other ninety percent is because it does not allow the broadcasting marketplace in the UK to operate naturally. This baleful situation is made even worse by the existence of the ITV network, which was ALSO a creation of the state, and which is governend by bureacratic strictures. The BBC fills so many of the available niches for media in the UK that most of the time nobody contests them. And because of the cross-media possibilities for promotion, a private local radio station is not just going up against the local BBC radio station, it is also going up against BBC regional and national TV, print and web. So much of the time, nobody bothers to contest.

NASA does the same thing in the US for space-related industrial activity. NASA does the Shuttle, it does rocket delivery of satellites, it does manned space exploration, it does unmanned probes to the solar system and beyond, it does climate research (very badly), it does a million other things. And all on the taxpayer dime.

If NASA didn't exist at all, the commercial possibilities of space would soon drive the creation of viable replacement activity in most, perhaps all of these areas. And if no commercial outfit chose to do pure science space activity, a tiny version of NASA could be created to do simply that, and nothing else.

To me this all seems perfectly obvious and self-evident. Under Mrs Thatcher, Britain dispensed with numerous BBC-scale bureacracies, and the world didn't end. In fact, the privatisations were an amazing revelation to everybody willing to pay good attention. They have resulted in many new markets which hadn't previously had a chance to exist.

I can imagine that for the old guard like Neil Armstrong, the image of a strong, successful America is forever wedded to those enormous government agencies. Just as for many Russians the vast Soviet machine of state represented true power and prestige.

Unfortunately, they are both wrong. The laws of economics don't change from decade to decade, and vast government agencies have never been anything but vastly inefficient engines for achieving economic success. I feel for these ageing greats, and I honour their spectacular achievements, but NASA is not worth keeping just because of that sentiment.

I long for the day when Britain has a thriving, competitive broadcasting sector freed from the lowering presence of the BBC. I know that it will be much better, much more interesting, and much more useful.

And the American space industry will benefit in like kind from the disappearance of an all-powerful NASA.

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