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U.S. should privatize the space program

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Like many grade school classes in the tumultuous days of the late '60s and early '70s, the one I attended in Phoenix was given to cheekiness. During the first Apollo moon flights, for instance, our teacher often would turn on the black-and-white television set in the room and let us watch the coverage. Whenever the astronauts would pan their camera back toward earth, which bobbed like a ball on a dark carpet, someone would inevitably yell, "Look! I see myself!"

It was a temporary comic relief to a moment of sheer awe and imagination.

That cheekiness, by the way, finally reached the tipping point one memorable day when Mr. Harmon, our science teacher, announced we were going to watch a film called, "The Unseen World." One student felt compelled to shout out, "I've seen it!"

As a result, none of us did. Mr. Harmon wasn't a fan of comic relief. He shut off the projector and sentenced us to hard intellectual labor.

Those space-flight memories hit me recently as I watched the space shuttle Discovery take off amid a lot of finger-crossed anxiousness, and as I read about a risky spacewalking repair job. I wondered, how many kids today see themselves in the space program? How many kids bred on "Star Wars" feel awe at watching a man tear away tile fillers from the shuttle's belly high above the Atlantic? How many imaginative dreams have been stimulated by a mission whose main purpose seems to be to avoid crashing?

The great race to the moon in the 1960s was an enormous national unifier — at a time when the nation seemed to be coming apart virtually everywhere else. It lifted the imaginations of millions of kids like me, and it engendered a belief in mankind's ability to do virtually anything it could imagine.

But it was, of course, much more than that. It was at its roots a race to get to the moon before the Soviets, and thus to prove that our way of life was better than theirs.

That aspect was always a bit hyped. It never really was a battle between the forces of capitalism and socialism. Our space program was just as dependent on the public treasury as was the Soviet program. Even back then, people were making that point. Writing in the New York Times in 1969, editorial writer Barry Schwartz reminded everyone that "The three Apollo astronauts are all government employees, and Neil Armstrong — the first man ever to walk on the moon — belongs to the civil service." NASA's leaders, he said, "are successful bureaucrats, not entrepreneurs in the grand Ford-Rockefeller tradition."

The race to the moon may have shown that the American capitalist system was far better at fueling the type of public investment needed to get there than was communism, but it was not the result of much old-fashioned free enterprise.

And yet, there was a spirit of competition and national pride that fueled NASA and a lot of anxious Americans. Stephen Robinson, the 49-year-old astronaut who repaired the shuttle this past week, was a product of this. No doubt he sat in a class much like mine in the '60s, as evidenced by his decision to bring his childhood space-cadet lunchbox on the trip.

That '60s spirit of competition evaporated after the first couple of moon landings. Americans are a fickle lot. Other than the Apollo 13 near-disaster, no one paid much attention to the last Apollo flights. And no one pays much attention to the shuttle, unless something goes wrong.

Meanwhile, the Russians are our partners. The only rockets our enemies these days design are the kinds that kill people on buses and trains.

Maybe it's time to privatize space exploration.

NASA scientists obviously are brilliant, competent and hard-working. But like any other bureaucracy, NASA and its contractors are caught in a political system that naturally considers factors other than innovation and cost-efficiency.

Paul Allen had the right idea when he sponsored a contest to see which private company could launch someone safely into space. Of course, that also illustrated how far behind NASA private business is.

That could change if the government divested its space program in the right way, and if it offered the right incentives and the right controls.

A corporate flight to Mars would no doubt get schoolkids to "see themselves" in space exploration again. Not because it is privately run, but because it is a flight to Mars. Frankly, without a threat from the Soviets, the search for ways to muster enough enthusiasm to spend billions and billions in public funds to get there seems like a real journey into the unseen world.

Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret Morning News editorial page. E-mail: even@desnews.com