Thoughts on Manned Space: #1 Follow the Money

Human exploration has sometimes had lofty goals: spreading the Word of God, forging a better life for oneself or others.  But when it comes down to it, the biggest drive for getting on a ship and sailing into the great unknown, where there may be dragons, is the thought that there might be some treasure along with the dragons.

Me indica el dinero!
Most of us living in the New World today are here because the gamble paid off.  The Spanish found gold.  The English, tobacco and other crops.  There was money in the New World, not easy to get, but enough to make it worth the time, hassle and expense.  Governments, then individuals, followed the money and were rewarded for their efforts.

That's been one of the reasons the exploration and colonization of space has been so frustratingly slow.  We're not finding the money.

The thrilling space race of the '50s and '60s was in many ways fueled by fear and national pride, as Walt notes in his Saturday blog about Sputnik.  However, once, we achieved our goal of making it to the moon first, and finding nothing of great economic value, American interest turned back to itself.  Imagine if Columbus had only come back with a few interesting rocks and the promise of nothing more.

We've gotten a lot of terrific spin off technologies from the space program--from drink powder to water purification, airplane de-icing to artificial limbs.  However, these are the result of our quest for space, not what we've found there.  In Colonial terms, it's like justifying New World exploration because we're building better ships.  Looked this way, it's probably not a big surprise the NASA can't seem to hold onto a coherent plan of action for manned space for more than a few years.  The government wants them to encourage technologies and provide jobs as much (or more) than actually getting us outside the atmosphere.

Parliament has canceled construction on the Elenor-class ships, which critics say, is not only fraught with cost overruns, but  uses technology from not later than the 1630s...

 Here's the conundrum, though: unlike colonization on earth, even if we find some gold/tobacco equivalent in space, it could end up costing more to bring home that we'd get in profit.  So what do we do?

* Seek alternate means of financing our efforts. One of those is Space Tourism.  Virgin Galactic is already tapping into this market and has 400 customers signed up and waiting for their suborbital rides on Spaceship Two--$200,000 for a week of training and FOUR MINUTES at zero gravity.  Even the government has made use of tourists: in 2001, millionaire Dennis Tito paid $20 million to be the first space tourist on the International Space Station, and there have been several others since.  Much as the OWS people hate it, the people in the world with gobs of cash to burn on "frivolous" pursuits are often the ones that support programs that further mankind.

* Make space cheaper.  That's one of the driving reasons for encouraging private space industry, IMHO.  Companies that are not government dependent need to learn to do things effectively and inexpensively in order to stay afloat.  SpaceX, for example, says their Falcon Heavy will launch packages 30 times cheaper than the Delta IV, and an independent study by NASA and the Air Force said that if NASA were to have built the Falcon 9, it would have cost three times what it cost SpaceX.

*  Find the Money! Asteroid mining.  Space real estate. Biomedical engineering might be a source...but not if we get rid of privatized medicine, alas.  Even spinoffs, but they can't be the main focus.  Columbus discovered the New World on three little ships, not the top of the line.  The Space Shuttle ran for 30 years, until NASA was finding spare parts on ebay.  Perhaps if we hadn't kept scrapping the programs for its replacement in order to update the technology, we might not be depending on Soyuz right now.

Sometimes, people romanticize the exploration of space as the next colonization move for man.  However, if it's going to work, we have to follow a lesson of the past and follow the money.

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Walt said...

I agree that spaceflight is going to have to start paying its own way before it really takes off. The Florins from pawning Queen Isabella's jewels only last so long (Rick and the guys down at the shop drive very hard bargains). At the beginning of the Age of Discovery, the cargoes that paid the way were made up of small, expensive luxury items (contrary to my daughter's opinion, pepper isn't a necessity). It was only later that imported goods that most people could afford began to show up on the shelves as shipbuilding and navigation evolved to the point that moving larger cargoes became easier and, thus, cheaper. This evolution showed itself also in spin-offs such as clocks that kept consistent time and methods of cutting down on food spoilage (improved batteries and fire retardant children's sleepwear are some of the developments already spun-off from NASA programs).

The only place where the analogy breaks down, I think, is that rather than the East or West Indies, our present destinations are more like the Antarctic.

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