Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

A View from Jeff Foust

Privatizing Space Exploration

On Wednesday a subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee that deals with space issues held a hearing in Houston that featured several witnesses talking about the potential of privatizing parts of NASA’s new space exploration initiative. The Houston Chronicle summarized…

  • February 19, 2004

On Wednesday a subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee that deals with space issues held a hearing in Houston that featured several witnesses talking about the potential of privatizing parts of NASA’s new space exploration initiative. The Houston Chronicle summarized an idea from one of the witnesses as follows:

So far, NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity robotic missions to Mars have produced a record 6 billion “hits” on the agency’s Web sites since early January. If only 5 percent of the Web site visits spurred the purchase of a $1 screen saver featuring an image of the Martian landscape, NASA would have earned $300 million.

The problem with this analysis is that the witness confused “hits”–recorded each time any file, be it an HTML file, image, or style sheet, is downloaded–with visitors. A single visitor can be associated with hundreds of hits, depending on the number of files associated with each page and the number of pages that visitor views. Speedera, a company providing web hosting support to NASA, noted in late January that the NASA web sites at that time had four billion hits but just 33 million unique visitors. (This makes sense when you recall that the world population barely exceeds six billion.) This converts that $300 million figure into $1.65 million through January and perhaps $2.5 million by now. Moreover, costs like the high transaction fees associated with credit card purchases, particularly for cheap items like $1 screensavers, would eat away at a significant part of that $2.5 million.

This doesn’t mean privatizing space exploration isn’t always a bad idea. For example, some aspects of the Bush plan like robotic lunar missions might be ripe for partnerships with the private sector, given the existence of entrepreneurial ventures like Transorbital and LunaCorp who have been planning private lunar missions for years. However, people have to be aware that many privatization schemes simply don’t make much business sense.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Plus.
  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus the digital magazine, extensive archive, ad-free web experience, and discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events.

    See details+

    Print + Digital Magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

    Technology Review PDF magazine archive, including articles, images, and covers dating back to 1899

    10% Discount to MIT Technology Review events and MIT Press

    Ad-free website experience

/3
You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.