I’ve been meaning for some time to write about this now ancient Wired magazine article about Elon Musk, the inventor of PayPal, and his efforts to start his own private space program. A few things came to mind as I read it: one, starting your own personal space program sounds like a Lewis Black punchline. Two, the infinite variety of experience within this country alone, never mind the planet, is breathtaking. I’m hustling to make rent and put food on my family and this guy’s shooting his own rockets at the moon. Three, generations from now historians will still be trying to figure out the societal impact of the dotcom boom. On the one hand, multitudes had their pensions and retirement savings wiped out when it all finally collapsed; on the other, men and women whose earliest memory is Neil Armstrong walking on the moon suddenly found themselves with nearly infinite capital – and they’re all still young enough to do something with it. I don’t think we’ve even seen the beginning of what’s going to come of that.
It’s easy, especially when you consider NASA’s travails of late (forget about drunk astronauts- as of 2010 the United States loses the capacity for manned spaceflight) to point to the vigorous efforts of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson and conclude that once again the private sector is more aggressive and efficient and the future of space exploration belongs to it. It’s easy – and it’s wrong. I give Elon Musk credit for attempting something a bit more ambitious than flinging Justin Timberlake on a twenty-minute sub-orbital joyride, but even his grand plan is:
…to fly resupply missions — with astronauts! — to the International Space Station, at 250 miles up in low Earth orbit.
In other words, he’s not going to go any farther than NASA has.
Privately owned, for-profit organizations just don’t do exploration. It’s too risky. Even the private companies that established Europe’s first colonies in Asia and the Americas, such as the Dutch East India Company and Virginia Company, did so only after exploratory missions subsidized by their respective crowns. It pains me to say this, given NASA’s sorry state, but if any real exploration, any real science is going to get done, it’s going to have to come from them.
Governments matter. Governments are the only institutions that are willing to bring manpower and capital to projects that aren’t immediately profitable. Their reasons for doing so may not always be honorable (hell, let’s be honest, they almost never are) and sadly the not-immediately-profitable enterprises they pursue often include ill-advised wars. But programs like space exploration, curing diseases, poverty relief – they’re only going to come from government. You’ll get the occasional billionaire’s foundation to throw some money at a problem, but ultimately it’s a government that’s going to use that money.
You can’t walk away. You can’t write government off, no matter how tempting that is given the bloodthirsty goons on one end of Pennsylvania Avenue and the feckless milktoasts on the other, but Bill Gates isn’t going to end the war in Iraq and there’s no venture capitalist out there with a secret program to “invent” our way out of the global warming crisis. We’re stuck with government, the only viable tool we’ve got to address the various shitstorms gathering on the horizon. It’s not the greatest tool – let’s face it, we’re not talking about a Craftsman Strap Wrench here – but it’s all we’ve got.