The Space-Junk “Crisis”

Debris-GEO1280Whenever you see the words “Lockheed Martin” you should think “taxpayer-funded cronyism,” so when I saw the recent Drudge headline that read “LOCKHEED seeks to clean up space…” I mentally added the clause “with money stolen from taxpayers.”

The space junk crisis is apparently the latest looming global disaster that requires a government solution. Drudge links to a Financial Times article that only gets to the financial heart of the matter six paragraphs down:

[The joint venture to track space junk between Lockheed and Electro Optic System Holdings] follows the award in June of a US$915m contract by the US Air Force to Lockheed to build a “space fence” project – a powerful radar system to track and catalogue space debris. This radar will monitor 200,000 of the largest pieces of junk in orbit.

Ah, so this latest “private sector” effort is really an adjunct to a grant of nearly a billion dollars from the US Treasury to Lockheed.

Lockheed knew how to strike when the iron was hot, of course, since the recent movie Gravity make space junk an issue in the popular imagination:

The 2013 Hollywood movie Gravity, which starred Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, focused public attention on the space junk problem, which Nasa [sic] has been grappling with for years.

It’s not hard to imagine the Powerpoint presentation delivered by Lockheed salesmen to USAF bureaucrats featuring a clip of the space-junk-caused disaster at the beginning of Gravity as an illustration of just how important it is that Lockheed get $900 million ASAP.

This isn’t to say that space junk isn’t a real issue. Space junk is causing real damage to actual property in orbit as noted in the article:

Awareness of the dangers posed by man-made space debris has grown since the first hypervelocity collision between satellites in 2009, which took place 800km above Siberia. Iridium 33, which was part of a network of satellites providing phone services, was destroyed when it collided with a deactivated Russia satellite Cosmos-2251.

But if space junk is a real problem for private parties, then it would appear that they have a large stake in solving the problem either through clean-up or by constructing space crafts differently. In other words, there’s an incentive to put private money into solving the problem. But why use voluntary and peaceful means when it’s easier for Lockheed to just go back to the well of taxpayer funds? When you’re a lobbyist-heavy corporatist outfit like Lockheed, it’s always easier to just employ the violence of taxation than the more costly work of market transactions. The financial benefits of such a strategy can be immense. The FT article notes:

…shares in Electro Optic Systems Holdings have risen: up by 49 per cent over the past seven days, closing Tuesday at 67 cents.

“There is a commercial opportunity when you consider investment in space is worth about US$900m,” says Ba-Ngu Vo, professor at Curtin University.

I wonder how many high-ranking DOD employees and members of Congress just happened to buy stock in EOS right before the new agreement was announced. We may never know.

 

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