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opinion | John E. Sununu

Private-sector propulsion

If a privately owned company can launch a rocket, why shouldn’t one handle the mail?

JEREMY TRAUM FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

If a private rocket docks in space, can anyone hear the noise? That was the operative question as Dragon, the capsule manufactured by the company SpaceX, delivered a few odds and ends to the International Space Station and returned safely to the confines of earth late last week. Privately built and operated, it was the first of its kind. It will not be the last.

Rockets don’t capture America’s imagination the way they did during the Apollo era. But the concept of privately funded space travel has, understandably, raised a few eyebrows. In any other country, and in the minds of many Americans, such an achievement was unimaginable. Making widgets is one thing, this thinking goes, but only governments can do the big stuff. Roads, bridges, airports, and even spaceships are the province of the politician, the bureaucrat, and the taxman.

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Credit Elon Musk, SpaceX’s CEO, with turning that view on its head. The PayPal billionaire sees a clear business opportunity built around private-sector cargo operations, satellite launches, and personal space travel. His appetite for risk may be higher than yours and mine, but he is not alone. Orbital Sciences Corporation will launch its own Antares rocket in August with a space station docking scheduled for December. Partnerships that include big firms like Boeing and Lockheed Martin aren’t far behind.

It’s not quite a space race, but it is a new era, famously initiated by the $20 million “X Prize” offered to the first private company to put a man in space. Microsoft founder Paul Allen and astronaut Burt Rutan claimed the prize in 2004. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic anticipates that the successor craft — called SpaceShipTwo — will take paying customers aloft in 2013. To its credit, NASA has welcomed the competition, signing a $1.6 billion deal with SpaceX for a dozen more deliveries.

As a human endeavor, space flight is relatively young. But relentless innovation in computing, materials, and propulsion will continue to improve the safety, reliability, and costs of these ventures. If the private sector can conquer the boundaries of space, why can’t it be trusted to deliver first class mail? And which other areas that were once the sole purview of government could be let go as well?

While there may be many things that government should do, there are just a few, like national security, that only government should do. SpaceX reminds us how short that list really is, just as a trip to the local DMV reminds us that government doesn’t do anything especially well.

This issue — when do we need government? — reflects a recurring point of contention in the presidential campaign. In President Obama’s vision, we are a nation (like Julia, his “everywoman” campaign stand-in) whose prosperity flows from government programs like Head Start, college loans, and subsidized healthcare. When Mitt Romney argues that the country thrives on the success of companies large and small — owned by shareholders, entrepreneurs, and, yes, private-equity firms — he’s articulating a profoundly different worldview.

The point here isn’t that the private sector could have put a man on the moon in 1969. It couldn’t — and still can’t. But once an economic activity is well enough understood to predict costs, potential revenues, and risks, the door should be opened to competition. Uncle Sam’s sacred cows shouldn’t be so sacred any more.

Some of the cows are very middle-class: Even in good times, special interests argued that mortgage markets couldn’t operate without the subsidies provide by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The consequences have been disastrous. Some cows, like the federal government’s deep and complex intervention in American farming, serve more targeted interests. And some, like Amtrak and the Postal Service, are just big and fat.

Change is hard. In the end, you may find yourself defending the status quo, which is always easier. But don’t say that the private sector “can’t,” and don’t say that the private sector “won’t.” It just put a rocket in space. It can run a train cheaper, finance a decent mortgage, or deliver your mail on time. It just needs someone to give it the chance.

John E. Sununu, a regular Globe contributor, is a former US senator from New Hampshire.

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