It used to be the terrifying, glorious, too-beautiful unknown; the final frontier; the end and the beginning of all things. It is now the proposed next step in merchandizing. It is outer space. Can capitalism, born on the pale blue dot tucked away in a corner of the Milky Way Galaxy, conquer the final, infinite frontier?
Perhaps a more relevant question is, do we want capitalism to be such a conquistador of the stars?
Well, when you really think about it—why not? Capitalism and its accompanying free market are driven by advertising and marketing, and while these can include the good, the bad, and the horrifyingly mediocre it is the way that all of the wondrous and exciting products that we are sometimes overwhelmed by but generally enhance our lives beyond telling are first delivered into our cognizance. No marketing, no advertising, no awareness of your offering and hence no money for you. We desire, overall, for our space-related endeavors to become more and more privatized, and that inevitably means more and more commercialized (it goes without saying that there are many who do not actually desire that latter thing, but based on everything that we know about economics it is an unavoidable outcome of the former thing). The people and institutions that would operate the privatized and more accessible space-faring endeavors would need to eat and be able to have their families taken care of and they might enjoy dressing nice from time to time, too, and they aren’t going to get government stipends as their salaries. They would have to advertise their products and services. The government might not “besmirch” its endeavors to establish a Moon base or a Mars base with shameless self-promotion—it does not need to, it just raises your taxes and sells government bonds to get its money—but then again the government is notorious for being financially wasteful and practically inefficient as compared to the ruthless, shamelessly selfish efficiency of the private sector. And in the end, what we really like, what really sets us free, is efficiency of delivery of goods and services that we the people decide that we need or desire.
But perhaps the question that truly cuts close to the bone is, how should this advertising with regards to the exploration of space get carried out? Clever advertising is appreciated, albeit often subconsciously, as something of an art form. The Chicago White Sox have a particularly clever marketing campaign going on now whereby they start all of their home games at precisely 7:11PM (day games clearly excepted) in order to promote 7-11 Market stores. 7-11 Markets is paying the Chisox half a million dollars in exchange for the subtle reminder of their existence. But we know that we despise advertising that is in your face.
The question is raised because of a recent article written by Andy Pasztor of The Wall Street Journal. In the article, he tells us of the proposed program by Republican Representative Ken Calvert of California, a member of the House Science subcommittee that oversees NASA programs that would be aimed at providing money to space-exploring entrepreneurs. Pasztor writes that Calvert proposes a bill that would make “NASA space assets available for commercial advertising and marketing opportunities.” If that ever becomes law, companies and universities might be able to market themselves by plastering logos on equipment or sponsoring equipment such as cameras on the International Space Station.
Calvert likens his proposed program to those used by public radio and The Smithsonian Institute, whose advertising he calls “dedicated and tasteful”. He also says that he thought up his idea to make the public more aware of manned programs for exploring space while not having to tax people more in order to make them so aware. His objective is to get the fund up to $100 million and then, it seems, give it out piecemeal in the form of prizes for ideas about exploring space.
While this is a noble cause, does it really further the end of bringing space exploration under the aegis of the private sector? A question that is raised is whether this law would really promote space-related entrepreneurship or whether it would glorify government involvement in space programs even more—while promoting big corporations that are conceived of as sleeping with big government or the universities where the curricula are more about politics than thinking. There are plenty of people in the public who would be turned off by this starry marriage, seeing it as just one more way that influential companies get the federal government to help make them mind-boggling profits at the expense of the diminishing middle class. This concept would just be thrown into stark relief to many Americans by an initiative that calls for $100 million sponsored by an agency that commands many billions of dollars annually for its own programs.
Moreover, it has to be asked whether this would have the opposite effect from that intended, as so many federal government programs and promotions do. Instead of making the American public more interested and excited about exploring space than it has been since the 1970s, might it not leave a bad taste in a significant portion of the public’s mouths? NASA, despite its flaws and its frequent short-sightedness, is a heroic symbol to many Americans, one of the shining and noble spots in a federal government that is generally seen as ominously inimical to individual rights and a bungler on important action. NASA’s spacecraft and astronauts are seen by many as advertisements in their own right—advertisements to other nations of the might and grandeur that still can come out of the United States. Americans are turning to satellite radio subscriptions to remove commercials from their airwaves while a government representative is proposing a way of putting it right back in a different place. I think it’s a very telling dichotomy.
Again, while motivated by a noble notion, I don’t think the proposed program would go over well—because the public is fed up with the blatant mixing of politics and business.