Space Exploration: Bureaucracy or Reality?

By Bill Walker, July 1995

On July 20, 1969, an American stepped out of a crude spacecraft onto the surface of the Moon. It has now been twenty-six years since that "one small step". Far from heralding the era of space exploration and colonization promised by presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, the moon voyages now seem to have been a dead end. Not only have we not progressed to building moonbases, space stations or missions to Mars, America no longer has any spacecraft capable of voyaging to the Moon.

What went wrong with the dream? Surprisingly, the answer to this space age riddle can be found in history.

This is not the first time that a large nation has turned inward and abandoned its age of exploration. Though it is little known except among historians, Europeans were not the first to go in search of "New Worlds". The Chinese Emperor Yongle had launched his fleets toward Africa and India long before.

In 1405, the eunuch admiral Zheng He set forth with a fleet of 317 ships crewed by 27,870 men. Their two-year mission: to seek out new life forms and new civilizations (and make them submit to the Emperor). Between 1405 and 1431, the exploration fleets made seven major voyages, traveling to India, Ceylon, the Persian Gulf, and East Africa. They brought back curiosities such as zebras, ostriches, and giraffes (and the king of Ceylon, who did not appreciate their visit). They also distributed lavish foreign aid on those princes who swore fealty to the Chinese Emperor.

Then, they stopped. The entire program was shut down. The mighty shipyards no longer produced long-range vessels. Ownership of oceangoing ships was forbidden to Chinese citizens. Foreign trade of any kind was discouraged, whether by land or sea. In 1479, the War Ministry destroyed the official records of the journeys. Chinese exploration might never have happened, for all its effect on future generations.

European exploration got off to a later start, on a shoestring compared to the Imperial budgets of the Chinese. The Europeans did not succeed because of superior ship technology, either. Zheng He's exploration vessels had compasses, stern post rudders, and multiple watertight compartments. Scholars estimate the largest of the vessels were over 400 feet long, and displaced up to 3,000 tons. (The Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria of 1492 are thought to have been smaller than 100 tons; they could have served as lifeboats for Zheng He).

Yet the European exploration was no dead end. It quickly spread both the good and the bad of European culture around the globe. Exotic products poured back into European ports. Scientific knowledge exploded. European colonists left to pursue their dreams of freedom (or their peculiar forms of repression, in some cases) on new continents months' voyages away from their kings.

The difference between European and Chinese exploration was simple. Chinese explorations were huge government projects whose goal was prestige (and perhaps shipbuilding contracts for the politically favored?). They were not followed by traders or settlers, because the Emperors valued control over their subjects' lives above all else. The Emperors did not believe in individual rights or private property apart from that granted by the all-powerful state. The Chinese Age of Exploration was founded squarely on the ideal of government control of -- everything.

European explorations were often funded by governments. But they were followed rapidly by traders and colonists. Private property and trade built the economic strength of the English colonies. Even those who came to the New World to create planned societies, like the Pilgrims, ended up adopting free enterprise instead.

European governments tried to limit the independence of their colonies, and failed. Eventually some of these colonies broke away from the whole idea of kings, and became the United States. But have we really advanced so far from Emperor Yongle, and his quest for government prestige?

If we look at the American space program without the mist of sentiment, we see that it looks more like the huge, bureaucratic Chinese program than the decentralized Europeans. Zheng He would feel right at home in NASA. NASA is huge budgets, giant government programs aimed toward prestige goals, and no lowly entrepreneurs. And most critical of all, there is no provision for private property in space.

NASA has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on exploration and research. Many possible space industries have been identified, ranging from asteroid mining to vaccine production. But no company can invest where there are no property rights. If the dream of space colonization is ever to be realized, investors and homesteaders must be able to own Moon real estate, asteroids, orbit slots, and space stations.

NASA will never be able to create the enormous and complicated infrastructure needed for space development. If we have learned anything from the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is that there is no substitute for the market system. Until spaceships can count on being able to refuel at Joe's Deuterium & Lube, space travel will remain a waste dump for government's excess cash (or should I say excess debt?).

Newt Gingrich has said that he wants to see America return to the Moon to stay, with a permanent base. He doesn't need to boost NASA's budget. All he has to do is allow Americans to extend the American system of private property rights to the new frontier. And then future generations can read Neil Armstrong's heroism as a preface to a new age, instead of a pathetic footnote to some other nation's dreams made real.

Source: July 19, 1995, post to Libernet by Bill Walker.