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Peter Ward

Peter Ward studied journalism at the University of Sheffield before moving to Dubai, where he reported on the energy sector. After three years in the Middle East, he earned his[…]

The Consequential Frontier: Challenging the Privatization of Space

PETER WARD: One of the greatest criticisms leveled at NASA is that they don't take enough risk, and that's for good reason. You've seen that they have had tragedies in their past. They had the Challenger disaster. They've had two tragedies in the shuttle program alone. And we saw whole crews die in those. And that makes you nervous. That's bad for PR. That's bad for a government. That's bad for a president. If you see these national heroes who are supposed to be going into space to further the species and get glory for the country and they don't come back, that aside from being a terrible, terrible thing is also extremely bad PR and it did affect NASA a lot.

And what we've seen now is NASA has shifted some of that risk. NASA's role has changed. Back then they would be a contractor and they would tell companies to build them a specific part of a rocket. But they would do the whole mission themselves. Now we see NASA is more of a client so it's shifted the responsibility and the risk to SpaceX. SpaceX is basically selling NASA a ride to the international space station. So if something were to go wrong and thankfully as the years go on it's less likely that something will go wrong, NASA doesn't have as much of that risk. It doesn't have as much responsibility I guess. It will come under fire for hiring SpaceX but ultimately anything bad that would happen would be on SpaceX's shoulders.

So you've seen NASA has switched, has taken the risk and put it onto the private companies. And the private companies are much better equipped to deal with that risk. They don't have to elect their CEO every four years, for example. They don't have to answer to a whole country and they can go ahead and do things that other people couldn't. And you've seen it in America in the past actually. You saw the railroad expansion. America used private companies to do that. It wasn't the government. They gave them huge amounts of land and said go and build us a railroad system and there are actually a lot of similarities between those two scenarios. A lot of people see Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin as the railroad companies who are being tasked with connecting us with another frontier essentially.