Launius: Public-Private Partnerships Neither Panacea Nor Pandora's Box

Launius: Public-Private Partnerships Neither Panacea Nor Pandora's Box

A review of public-private partnerships throughout U.S. history published by NASA concludes that they are neither a panacea nor a Pandora’s box in finding ways to accomplish goals as diverse as building railroads or creating the telephone industry. Eminent space historian Roger Launius examined six case studies as possible analogs to using such partnerships in the space program.

NASA’s “commercial crew” and “commercial cargo” programs, though referred to as “commercial,” actually are public-private partnerships (PPPs) where the federal government and the private sector each bring resources to the table and the government assures an initial market for the services.

In the report, Historical Analogs for the Stimulation of Space Commerce, Launius explains that PPPs are more common in U.S. history than many people realize. They “have been in use in the United States for over 200 years and thousands are operating today,” he says.

 He chose six to study as analogs for developing space commerce:

  • Transcontinental Railroad
  • Commercial Air Transportation
  • Telecommunications
  • Antarctica
  • Public Works
  • National Parks

He concludes that “The reality is that public-private partnerships are neither a panacea for all ills of public policy nor a Pandora’s box of troubles.  They offer appropriate responses to problems of society, especially those that have technological infrastructure, or enormous investment challenges.  There are always tradeoffs.”

Looking at the applicability of PPPs to human spaceflight, in particular, Launius lists five major themes traditionally used to justify a large, publicly funded program: 

  • scientific discovery and understanding;
  • national security and military applications;
  • economic, competitiveness and commercial applications;
  • human destiny/survival of the species; and
  • national prestige/geopolitics. 

He concludes the first two are important drivers for the space program overall, but not for human spaceflight, and the last two “have receded into the background as drivers for sustained public investment in the American space program.”   According to his analysis, “[c]ommercial activities are the primary arena that might prove successful for energizing human spaceflight.”  He sees a robust future for entrepreneurial activities in earth orbit and urges that NASA change how it operates and “develop more equal partnerships to accomplish its space exploration mandate.”

Launius is Associate Director, Collections and Curatorial Affairs, at the National Air and Space Museum.  He served as NASA’s Chief Historian from 1990-2002 and is the author or editor of dozens of books on the history of space and aeronautics,  baseball, and the Mormon religion. 

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