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Review: The Privatization of Space Exploration

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The Privatization of Space Exploration: Business, Technology, Law and Policy
By Lewis D. Solomon
Transaction Publishers, 2008
hardcover, 128 pp.
ISBN 978-1-4128-0759-3

One of the biggest debates about the Obama Administration’s revised space exploration plan is the emphasis it places on commercial providers to astronauts to and from low Earth orbit. For some, this is a long-overdue recognition of the growing capabilities of the commercial space sector and an opportunity by NASA to hand over the more routine (relatively speaking) aspects of spaceflight so that the agency can focus on the cutting-edge exploration only it can do. For others, it is a tragic error that will lead to the loss of American leadership in space as commercial entities find themselves unable to provide safe, affordable transportation on schedule. That debate, though, is hardly a new one, as advocates have argued for years that it’s time for the government to transition more activity to the private sector. That’s the case made in The Privatization of Space Exploration, a book written in 2008 but still largely relevant today.

In The Privatization of Space Exploration, Lewis Solomon, a law professor at George Washington University, makes the case for an enhanced role for private ventures in space. He links the increased interest in commercial human spaceflight to the flights of SpaceShipOne in 2004 that won the $10-million Ansari X PRIZE: “it got people excited to dream again about human spaceflight.” It’s such commercial efforts, he argues, that can lift NASA from decades of “stagnation”, provided that the agency is more willing to work with such ventures than it has in the past.

He links the increased interest in commercial human spaceflight to the flights of SpaceShipOne in 2004: “it got people excited to dream again about human spaceflight.”

Much of the slender book (only about 120 pages, excluding the table of contents and index) is devoted to profiles of four companies Solomon sees at the forefront of the new wave of commercial space activity: Scaled Composites (and its work with Virgin Galactic), Space Adventures, SpaceX, and Bigelow Aerospace. Some of these profiles are now a little dated, as one might expect after two years: the SpaceX chapter, for example, makes several references to the proposed Falcon 5 medium-class rocket that the company has since shelved. A later—and more evergreen—chapter deals with some of the legal issues associated with commercial space activity (as one might expect from a law professor), including the uncertainties about private property rights under current legal regimes.

Solomon is largely sympathetic to the argument that a greater role for the commercial space industry is essential to humanity long-term future in space. “For too long, NASA’s culture remained indifferent, if not hostile, to commercial activity,” he writes. “In the early decades of the twenty-first century, perhaps NASA managers will embrace commercialization and innovation.” Today NASA’s leadership appears to have done just that, with the pro-commercialization elements of the new budget proposal. However, whether NASA will follow through—and whether the commercial sector can, in fact, deliver—will be among the key questions of space policy in the coming years.