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Review: seeking the ultimate space commercialization guide

Two books take different approaches, but fall short

Space: The Free-Market Frontier
By Edward L. Hudgins (editor)
Cato Institute, 2002
Softcover, 260pp.
ISBN 1-930865-19-8

Made In Space: Space Investor’s Guide To The Next Revolution
By Kenneth Schweitzer
1stBooks, 2003
Softcover, 248pp.
ISBN 1-4107-1245-1

For years space entrepreneurs and enthusiasts alike have been seeking what could be called the “ultimate space commercialization guide”: a description of the benefits and opportunities of commercial space ventures that is so clear and compelling that it convinces investors, regulators, and the media. Writing such a guide, it turns out, has proven as difficult as developing viable commercial space ventures—an obvious conclusion given the current moribund state of many sectors of the industry. This, though, hasn’t stopped people from trying to write such a book, by people both unknown and overexposed. Two recent books approach the problem from opposite directions, but while making valiant attempts to describe the potential of space commercialization, come up short of the mark.

Space: The Free-Market Frontier is the proceedings of a one-day conference held at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank in Washington, back in March 2001. An all-star list of contributors, from Congressman Dana Rohrabacher and former Congressman Bob Walker to Dennis Tito and Buzz Aldrin, offer their insights on the promise of commercial space ventures, as well as the barriers such ventures face. The barriers the book focuses on lie mostly on the legal and regulatory side—transportation policy, property rights in space, and tax incentives—rather than the technical and financial issues space ventures face. That focus should not be a surprise given the general interests of the Cato Institute.

As a primer on the regulatory challenges space ventures face, this book is excellent. Even though the book is based on a conference held over two years ago, much of the book is still fairly up-to-date, as much of the proposed legislation discussed in the book is still working its way through Congress. However, the book’s focus on policy issues could leave the false impression that those are the only major problems faced in commercial space projects: that is, if the regulatory markets are solved, one might be left thinking that the markets, investors, and technology will all be ready, a conclusion not necessarily correct. The book also faces another weakness common to any conference proceedings: the unevenness of the various contributed articles. The articles in Space: The Free-Market Frontier range from 20-30 page papers complete with dozens of footnotes to Rohrabacher’s contribution, eight paragraphs that barely span a page and a half.

Made In Space takes a more market-oriented look at commercial space ventures. The book covers topics ranging from public space travel (aka space tourism) to extraterrestrial mining to space solar power. The book also goes into topics like space transportation and space policy issues (the latter in a chapter with the memorable title “Uncle Sam Gets Sober”). For the space enthusiast or expert, there’s not a lot of new information here: the book is primarily targeted at those looking to invest in space ventures and seeking a guide to the various markets and companies.

Made In Space in one respect takes the opposite approach than Space: The Free-Market Frontier: rather than relying on a group of experts to pen articles, Made In Space is written by just one person, Kenneth Schweitzer. Therein, unfortunately, lies the key problem with the book. The publisher, 1stBooks, is closer to a vanity press than a traditional publisher, and thus doesn’t provide the same editing services as a conventional publisher. As a result, the book contains a number of editing glitches (like references to “Eric Lindberg” and “Wernor von Braun”) that an editor at a traditional publisher (hopefully!) would have caught. The book also is overly optimistic in some areas, forecasting, for example, that a prototype microprocessor fabrication plant will likely be added to the International Space Station “in the next few years” (and even including an illustration of said plant, which looks like an external tank bolted onto the ISS). Needless to say, such an addition seems unlikely except for very large values of “next few years”.

Neither Space: The Free-Market Frontier nor Made In Space appear to be the ultimate space commercialization guide so many are seeking. Space: The Free-Market Frontier is a good view of regulatory issues regarding space commercialization, but it focuses on those issues at the expense of technical and financial issues, and its collection of authors results in an uneven text. Made In Space, on the other hand, offers a general, if overly optimistic, overview of commercial space markets and their barriers. However, the book could have used more thorough editing to weed out some of the weaker arguments and correct a number of errors. The search for the ultimate space commercialization guide continues.