Today’s news feed is regurgitating a press release about the launch of Paypal Galactic, an enterprise that will enable people to continue to dump money into corporate coffers even while they’re in space. (This proposal rests on the assumption that a space tourism industry will, indeed, come to pass, an assumption that I do not embrace.)
Given today’s “news,” I offer the following.
In consolidating several years worth of work files (translation: filling the recycling bin) this month, I came across a copy of a magazine feature entitled “Infinity or Bust: as NASA scientists struggle with an image problem, swashbuckling entrepreneurs are selling space as the ultimate free market. Is it fool’s gold? ” Written by Hannah Lobel, it was published in the November-December 2006 issue of the Utne Reader. (You’ll find the table of contents for the issue here.)
The theme for this issue was “Earth Attacks!!” Even with my desktop magnifier, I can’t decipher all the words in the teaser on the cover of this issue, as pictured online. I can make out, though, “crazed capitalists…and the race to conquer the cosmos.” So you get the gist….
Given that many of those same “swashbucklers” who were pitching the commercial development of space in 2006 are pitching same today – Utne cited Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson, Eric Anderson of Space Adventures and Planetary Resources, Elon Musk of SpaceX, and Bob Bigelow of Bigelow Aerospace – I thought I’d share a few passages from the piece.
“Today’s space enthusiasts say the new path to profit [in aerospace] is tourism that will truly be out of this world. And the media have chimed in with breathless stories about ‘the final frontier’ which, roughly translated, means ‘free market’,” Lobel wrote – remember, in 2006.
“The buzz started in 2001,” Lobel claimed, when Space Adventures brokered a $20 million deal for Dennis Tito to and from the International Space Station via Russian rocket. I recall that talk of space tourism (was it buzz? I think so) and breathless media coverage of it goes back at least to the early ‘80s (when I started paying attention, as editor of Space Business News), if not earlier.
On October 4, 2004, Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne, financed by the ultra-rich Paul Allen (net worth: $15 billion) won the $10 million X Prize for designing the first privately funded piloted spacecraft to exceed an altitude of 328,000 feet twice in two weeks. On July 25, 2005, Scaled Composites’ then-president Burt Rutan and Virgin Galactic chief Richard Branson announced they were partnering to form a new Spaceship Company “to jointly manufacture and market spaceships for the new suborbital personal spaceflight industry.” (More on these guys in a future post….)
Lobel quoted an editorial in a Las Vegas newspaper about prospects for commercial space development: “When flexibility and innovation are called for, nothing has ever succeeded like the profit-seeking free market.” And she commented, “despite all the dream the free market seems set to fulfill…the reliance on a capitalist mentality carries familiar pitfalls.”
IMHO – based on decades of observation and several years of working for a corporation – the corporate drive for profit is blind to unfairness, injustice, and suffering. I’d also like to note that most if not all of these so-called commercial space companies are raking in all the government subsidies they can get (called by other names, of course – NASA Space Act agreements, state bond financing, and so on).
As to the hype, Lobel wrote, “That so much attention has been lavished on an industry whose accomplishments lag decades behind NASA’s is testament to the savvy marketing of outfits courting capital and public opinion. Commercialization has been framed as populism, as the answer to an innovation-stifling bureaucracy, and several millionaires stand to profit.”
All too true in 2013…. In the global, networked, 24/7 electronic communication we live in today, it’s easy to build buzz online, virtually for nothing. Witness what’s just happened: yesterday “PayPal Galactic” issued a press release about its formation, this morning dozens of headlines touted the contents of the release, and a press conference is scheduled for later today. Who needs an advertising budget when it’s this easy to get attention?
I’ll wrap up this post with Lobel’s closing words. She observed that the U.S. Cold-War human space flight program was largely political (or, as the policy wonks like to say, geopolitical). “But the impact of the feat managed to transcend politics. It inspired wonder and, as it evoked the promise of worlds beyond our own, encouraged people to envision new possibilities. Those intangibles, unlikely to fit into a business plan, are at risk if exploration is put at the mercy of pure profit.”
The Cold War ended a quarter century ago. The global political environment we live in today is different. I do believe that space exploration is worth pursuing – to learn more about the universe we live in, to better understand who and where and why we are. I’ve chosen to work with NASA science programs because these are the goals they aim for. Corporations will not be “exploring” space for profit. They will be exploiting. The “commercial space” movement is largely driven by wealthy white men* – the same demographic that’s been running the show for centuries. Isn’t it time for a change?
* I know there are exceptions, most notably NASA deputy administrator and commercial space advocate Lori Garver. But they are far and few between.