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Not Another Safety Argument

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The President’s Commission on Moon, Mars and Beyond [2] recently recommended that much of NASA’s operations be privatized. As reported [3] in the New York Times:

It [the Commission] said NASA should make itself a leaner organization that concentrates on research and developing space technology that is not readily available. Any technology or services useful to the space program that are available from private industry should be contracted out, it said.

But manned space flight should continue to be the responsibility of government. Again, as reported by the New York Times, the Commission said that

launching human crews should continue to be primarily the job of the government, at least in the near future. This recommendation appears to acknowledge criticism by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which laid part of the blame for the loss of the space shuttle and its crew last year to NASA’s turning over too much of its safety oversight to private contractors.

This point about safety baffles me. As with the debate a few years ago [4] over contracting-out airport-security services to private firms versus having these services performed by government employees, there is no obvious reason why government employees are generally to be expected to perform better at checking systems for safety than are employees of private contractors.

A person’s diligence, energy, intelligence, savvy, ability, and concern for others do not automatically increase just because his or her paycheck is drawn on U.S. Treasury. What matters for assuring adequate levels of safety (apart from a reliable process for discovering just what levels of safety are best), is assuring that all workers with safety responsibilities have appropriate incentives and ability to carry out these responsibilities. Is there a reason that NASA cannot generally specify desired safety levels, institute appropriate means of checking that these levels are met, and implement a series of penalties and rewards to private contractors — penalties and rewards triggered by safety failures and safety successes?

Perhaps there is such a reason, but the argument against privatization too often rests on nothing more than the mere presumption that “of course a government employee will be better at assuring safety than will a private employee.” It’s a lousy presumption.

In short, if NASA is unable to contract with private firms in ways that give these firms incentives to achieve the level of safety that NASA desires, what is it generally about having employees actually working for NASA that makes space flight more safe?