Mission to Mars must go private to succeed

John Blundell writes in The Scotsman: President George Bush's declaration that he will authorise a manned colony on the Moon and human bases on Mars have jolted me. You would have to have a stunted imagination not to be moved by such adventures

Yet mundane terrestrial baggage will be carried by these adventurous astronauts. Who will be paying? Who will own what? How useful will Mars be? Oh dear, we'll need accountants and lawyers wherever we probe.

Bush is not finding the billions himself. Rather the tab will be picked up by US taxpayers in perhaps 20 years’ time. What arrests me is the unchallenged assumption that space exploration must be a nationalised industry. The Soviet effort may be stalled but the Chinese seem committed to joining the race. The European Space Agency is a strange combination of nationalised bodies. NASA is a pure old-fashioned nationalised entity.

I argue we should relinquish the expectationthat space has to be limited to vast quangos. The mindset we all share is an echo of the rivalry between the evaporated USSR and the still dynamic US. The first bleeps of the Sputnik galvanised the US into accelerating its space effort.

What we need is capitalists in space. Capitalism needs property rights, enforcement of contracts and the rule of law. The ideological tussle does not cease once we are beyond the ionosphere.

With the exception of Arthur C Clarke, none of us imagined the entertainment potential from satellites. Geostationary lumps of electronic gadgetry beam us our BSkyB television pictures. I remain in awe that Rupert Murdoch can place a device in the skies above Brazil that sends a signal to every home in each hemisphere. Who could have foreseen that mobile phones could keep us chattering without any wiring, or that global position techniques could plot where we all are to within a metre? These are business applications. Business is already in space.

Markets detect and apply opportunities that are not envisaged by even the most accomplished technicians. I’m not saying Murdoch has special competences. I imagine he is as baffled by digital miracles as I am. The point is that companies define and refine what public bodies cannot achieve. Lift the veil of course and all those satellite firms are an intricate web of experts supplying ideas and services. We have an infant space market.

What use will the Moon be? Is there value on Mars other than the TV rights? The answer is nobody can know. We can only make some guesses. The Spanish ships that set off for the US thought they would get to India. The Portuguese knew they’d reach China. The English followed them westwards seeking gold. In fact, they got tobacco. Events always confound expectations.

The arguments for putting men on Mars are expressly vague from President Bush. Perhaps he was really bidding for votes.

From my reading the best results may be medical. Zero, or low, gravity techniques may allow therapies of which we are ignorant. It seems facetious to suggest tourism may be a big part of space opportunity but as both the North and South poles are over-populated and there is a queue at the top of Mount Everest, a trip to the Sea of Tranquility may prove a magnet for the wealthy. Instead of NASA’s grotesque bureaucracy it may be Thomas Cook will be a greater force for exploration.

NASA could be a procurement body. It need not design and run all space ventures. It could sub-contract far more extensively. Without specialised engineering expertise it is not easy to criticise projects such as the shuttle. It seems to be excessively costly and far too fragile.

There are private space entrepreneurs already. They are tiddlers up against the mighty NASA. Yet Dan Goldin, the NASA leader, says he favours the privatisation of space: "We can’t afford to do solar system exploration until we turn these activities over to the cutting edge private sector...

"Some may say that commercialising portions of NASA’s functions is heresy. Others may think we are taking a path that will ruin the wonders of space. I believe that when NASA can creatively partner, all of humankind will reap the benefits of access to open space".

Is it possible the Moon has a more noble future than merely a branch office of NASA? Is it tolerable that Mars could be a subsidiary of the USA? Could it be nominally a further state of the union? These are not silly questions. In time space will be defined by lawyers and accountants as property rights will need to be deliberated.

One possibility may be that both environments are so hostile that Mars and the Moon will never be more than token pockets for humanity. On the evidence so far it is the orbiting satellites that have made us see the Earth through new eyes. We can survey and explore the planet better from 200 miles up than stomping on the surface. The emerging commercial body of space law is derived from telecommunications law.

It is perplexing and contrary to our immediate senses. How can you own or exchange something as intangible as digital messages bouncing off satellites? Yet we all pay our mobile phone bills.

Many of the business results of space exploration are unintended consequences of NASA’s early adventures. Computer development would probably have been slower but for the need for instrumentation for Apollo.

Are there prospects for Scottish firms in space? The prizes will not go to only the mega corporations. Perhaps Dobbies, the Edinburgh garden centre group, can create new roses by placing pots beyond gravity. Edinburgh University laboratories, or rather their commercial spin offs, could patent new medicines. Is it possible the genetic magicians at the Bush could hitch a ride into space and extend their discoveries?

NASA is a monopolist. All monopolies are bad for business. They only stunt opportunities. They blunt alternatives.

By opening space to entrepreneurship we will be starting on what FA Hayek memorably describes as "a discovery procedure". Science is an open system. So is capitalism.

• John Blundell is director general of the Institute of Economic Affairs.