I had lunch today with an old friend of my father's, who is either my godfather or my brother's (I don't remember which). He has been involved on a high level with government space policy for some time, and is presently working on reallocating NASA's budget to reflect the shift away from the Space Shuttle and towards the eventual return to the moon. (I forgot to bring up my blog with him, so unless he says otherwise I will withhold his name.)
This post will deal with one part of the conversation specifically. While we were talking about NASA's orbital missions, I mentioned the recent excitement about private space companies participating in space development and exploration. I was gratified when he expressed a great deal of support for the idea; indeed, the strategy being built now specifically anticipates turning over near-Earth orbital support missions to the private sector if possible. For example, he mentioned commerical cargo runs that would resupply NASA craft with water, so that the NASA launches would deal with less weight.
Of course, NASA cannot depend on the existence of private sector capacity in time (though I suspect it will be there soon), and the plans also allow for government to continue doing what it does now. But my father's friend made the following statement with which I emphatically agree (closely paraphrased):
Government is incredibly valuable as an initial developer, consumer and regulator of technologies that eventually have wide applications; computers, radar, airplanes and the Internet are examples. But government as a tool is potentially very dangerous and must be employed wisely. In particular, one should be very skeptical of government's continued involvement in mature industries, simply because that is how it has always been done. At the appropriate time, government should back out and let the market take its course.
I find it encouraging that government space policy is being set by people who support private space flight. The circumstances might be unique to space policy, given that the sort of people who go into space policy to begin with are most likely those who dream about space flight for the masses. Who knows? Perhaps the future successes of the private spacefaring industry could inspire other sectors of government to get into the act.
And if not, at least we'll soon be able to set up agricultural colonies on Ganymede...