Tax Breaks for Private Spaceships

On June 21, outer space may no longer be a frontier only for wealthy governments.

For the first time, a private piloted craft will try to reach the black edge of space, rocketing upward 62 miles in a historymaking suborbital flight.

The timing is perfect. This week, a White House commission recommended NASA's missions be supplemented by private entities, which could be supported by such incentives as tax breaks.

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The huge costs and risks of space travel aren't for the faint of wallet. In fact, next week's flight, by a craft called SpaceShipOne, is backed by Paul Allen, the billionaire cofounder of Microsoft. The flight is one of many planned by groups vying for a $10 million private prize set up in 1996 to reward the first private space flight.

Money is only half the problem in space travel. The attention span of democracies to support such ventures can be short. Perhaps only long-range commercial incentives and market demands can sustain the human use of space in the 21st century. (Congress will need to pass a pending bill that would allow private spaceports.)

The commission's recommendations are part of a larger report on how the US should prepare to travel to the moon (again) and to Mars, as proposed by President Bush in January. Human space flight, the report says, should remain with NASA for now, as should missions "where there is irrefutable demonstration that only government can perform the proposed activity."

Another way to say that is that a profit motive in space might lead to cutting corners and thus endanger lives. But safety rules, as well as tax breaks, are small steps to be worked out in another giant leap for mankind.

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