Page 51 of Deception Point

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"A decade. And not only is the NASA space station not yet fully operational, but the project so far has cost twenty times your bid. As an American taxpayer, I am sickened."

A grumble of agreement circled the room. Sexton let his eyes move, reconnecting with the group.

"I am well aware," the senator said, addressing everyone now, "that several of your companies have offered to launch private space shuttles for as little as fifty million dollars per flight."

More nods.

"And yet NASA undercuts you by charging only thirty-eight million dollars per flight... even though their actual per flight cost is over one hundred and fifty million dollars!"

"It's how they keep us out of space," one of the men said. "The private sector cannot possibly compete with a company that can afford to run shuttle flights at a four hundred percent loss and still stay in business."

"Nor should you have to," Sexton said.

Nods all around.

Sexton turned now to the austere entrepreneur beside him, a man whose file Sexton had read with interest. Like many of the entrepreneurs funding Sexton's campaign, this man was a former military engineer who had become disillusioned with low wages and government bureaucracy and had abandoned his military post to seek his fortune in aerospace.

"Kistler Aerospace," Sexton said, shaking his head in despair. "Your company has designed and manufactured a rocket that can launch payloads for as little as two thousand dollars per pound compared to NASA's costs of ten thousand dollars per pound." Sexton paused for effect. "And yet you have no clients."

"Why would I have any clients?" the man replied. "Last week NASA undercut us by charging Motorola only eight hundred and twelve dollars per pound to launch a telecomm satellite. The government launched that satellite at a nine hundred percent loss!"

Sexton nodded. Taxpayers were unwittingly subsidizing an agency that was ten times less efficient than its competition. "It has become painfully clear," he said, his voice darkening, "that NASA is working very hard to stifle competition in space. They crowd out private aerospace businesses by pricing services below market value."

"It's the Wal-Marting of space," the Texan said.

Damn good analogy, Sexton thought. I'll have to remember that. Wal-Mart was notorious for moving into a new territory, selling products below market value, and driving all local competition out of business.

"I'm goddamned sick and tired," the Texan said, "of having to pay millions in business taxes so Uncle Sam can use that money to steal my clients!"

"I hear you," Sexton said. "I understand."

"It's the lack of corporate sponsorships that's killing Rotary Rocket," a sharply dressed man said. "The laws against sponsorship are criminal!"

"I couldn't agree more." Sexton had been shocked to learn that another way NASA entrenched its monopoly of space was by passing federal mandates banning advertisements on space vehicles. Instead of allowing private companies to secure funding through corporate sponsorships and advertising logos-the way, for example, professional race car drivers did-space vehicles could only display the words USA and the company name. In a country that spent $185 billion a year on advertising, not one advertising dollar ever found its way into the coffers of private space companies.

"It's robbery," one of the men snapped. "My company hopes to stay in business long enough to launch the country's first tourist-shuttle prototype next May. We expect enormous press coverage. The Nike Corporation just offered us seven million in sponsorship dollars to paint the Nike swoosh and 'Just do it!' on the side of the shuttle. Pepsi offered us twice that for 'Pepsi: The choice of a new generation.' But according to federal law, if our shuttle displays advertising, we are prohibited from launching it!"

"That's right," Senator Sexton said. "And if elected, I will work to abolish that antisponsorship legislation. That is a promise. Space should be open for advertising the way every square inch of earth is open to advertising."

Sexton gazed out now at his audience, his eyes locking in, his voice growing solemn. "We all need to be aware, however, that the biggest obstacle to privatization of NASA is not laws, but rather, it is public perception. Most Americans still hold a romanticized view of the American space program. They still believe NASA is a necessary government agency."

"It's those goddamned Hollywood movies!" one man said. "How many NASA-saves-the-world-from-a-killer-asteroid movies can Hollywood make, for Christ's sake? It's propaganda!"

The plethora of NASA movies coming out of Hollywood, Sexton knew, was simply a matter of economics. Following the wildly popular movie Top Gun-a Tom Cruise jet pilot blockbuster that played like a two-hour advertisement for the U.S. Navy-NASA realized the true potential of Hollywood as a public relations powerhouse. NASA quietly began offering film companies free filming access to all of NASA's dramatic facilities-launchpads, mission control, training facilities. Producers, who were accustomed to paying enormous on-site licensing fees when they filmed anywhere else, jumped at the opportunity to save millions in budget costs by making NASA thrillers on "free" sets. Of course, Hollywood only got access if NASA approved the script.

"Public brainwashing," a Hispanic grunted. "The movies aren't half as bad as the publicity stunts. Sending a senior citizen into space? And now NASA is planning an all-female shuttle crew? All for publicity!"

Sexton sighed, his tone turning tragic. "True, and I know I don't have to remind you what happened back in the eighties when the Department of Education was bankrupt and cited NASA as wasting millions that could be spent on education. NASA devised a PR stunt to prove NASA was education-friendly. They sent a public school teacher into space." Sexton paused. "You all remember Christa McAuliffe."

The room fell silent.

"Gentlemen," Sexton said, stopping dramatically in front of the fire. "I believe it is time Americans understood the truth, for the good of all of our futures. It's time Americans understand that NASA is not leading us skyward, but rather is stifling space exploration. Space is no different than any other industry, and keeping the private sector grounded verges on a criminal act. Consider the computer industry, in which we see such an explosion of progress that we can barely keep up from week to week! Why? Because the computer industry is a free-market system: It rewards efficiency and vision with profits. Imagine if the computer industry were government-run? We would still be in the dark ages. We're stagnating in space. We should put space exploration into the hands of the private sector where it belongs. Americans would be stunned by the growth, jobs, and realized dreams. I believe we should let the free-market system spur us to new heights in space. If elected, I will make it my personal mission to unlock the doors to the final frontier and let them swing wide open."

Sexton lifted his snifter of cognac.

"My friends, you came here tonight to decide if I am someone worthy of your trust. I hope I am on the way to earning it. In the same way it takes investors to build a company, it takes investors to build a presidency. In the same way corporate stockholders expect returns, you as political investors expect returns. My message to you tonight is simple: Invest in me, and I will never forget you. Ever. Our missions are one and the same."

Sexton extended his glass toward them in a toast.

"With your help, my friends, soon I will be in the White House... and you will all be launching your dreams."

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