Governments Got Us To Space, But Private Companies Will Keep Us There

Why Our Future In Space Will Be Less Star Trek And More Foundation

Render of a proposed city on Mars with launch and landing pads for Interplanetary Transport S shuttles (SpaceX)

Render of a proposed city on Mars with launch and landing pads for Interplanetary Transport S shuttles (SpaceX)

Amid the avalanche of political scandals that consume the news cycle, an event never before seen outside of science fiction served as a welcome break. A new and immensely powerful rocket launched an object into deep space, and two of its three boosters returned to Earth, landing simultaneously in landing zones prepared especially for this task. Really, the whole thing looked like a special effect, from the strange rocket on the launch pad to the very eccentric cargo that quickly went viral. Sure, two of the main core’s boosters failed to fire, and it hit the water at 300 mph so it wasn’t picture perfect, but for a first test flight, it was a major achievement.

It’s hard to overstate just how incredible of a technological jump this was and how quickly (and stylishly) SpaceX is starting to pull ahead of conventional space programs. For the first time ever, we have mostly reusable rockets that can haul serious freight into orbit and beyond, and the modeling tools Musk’s engineers were able to develop are paving the way for an even bigger rocket, easily capable of shuttling large crews around the solar system in much the same style as 1950s sci-fi comic books predicted.

Meanwhile, their closest and most capable competitors aren’t even close to matching this, and NASA’s effort to create a powerful cargo hauling rocket is behind schedule and over budget. While it’s designed to be able to carry a bigger payload, each launch is projected to cost roughly $1 billion compared to Falcon Heavy’s per launch cost of $90 million, and has been designed not to be reusable. In many ways, it’s an inferior system intended to be a stopgap in response to the shuttle’s retirement, and the risk-averse nature of the space agency has led it to recycle expensive shuttle components to build a rocket it might not be able to truly utilize.

Worse yet, this program is diverting funds from projects which could put us closer to returning to the Moon and exploring Mars in the meantime. And that brings up the question of who is best positioned to take us into space in the 21st century, government or industry. Ask that question even 20 years ago, and the answer would unquestionably point to governments. They were the only ones with the designs, inventory, and cashflow to make it happen. But now, with aerospace companies about to lap space agencies in the complexity and capability of their hardware and software, and looking to make money from space tourism and carrying scientific experiments and communication satellites into orbit and beyond, the answer is a lot more complex.

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Why Do We Choose To Go To The Moon?

Basically, it comes down to our thoughts on a more fundamental question of why we want to go into space. Back in the days of the Space Race, the reason was national prestige. We wanted to go to show that we could, and we were better at it than our rivals. That attitude applied to both the United States and the Soviet Union. But when Apollo successfully landed multiple missions on the Moon, the government shut off the spigot because the science being done was irrelevant. It was a nice bonus to their primary goal of flag-planting.

A government-led mission to Mars would end the same way, even if it was an international endeavor. We’d get a grandiose landing or two more than likely followed by a program shutdown because it would be too expensive to keep it going. By contrast, a company like SpaceX, using their planned architecture of completely reusable, highly capable rockets to drive down costs, with paying customers on board, and eager to license the technology they will develop to other companies interested in using their innovations, has all the incentive to keep going and build full-blown cities on the Moon and Mars.

This is exactly why Musk’s plan is to consolidate all his launch systems to the so-called BFR, or Big Falcon Rocket, which is definitely exactly what they call it at the office and nothing else, and certainly how its name came about. If his company can build a rocket able to carry up to 40 people, dozens of satellites, or 150 metric tons of cargo anywhere in the solar system, it can ferry science experiments, tourists, explorers, engineers, and paying colonists to wherever they’re going. People could launch new careers and start new lives away from Earth for reasons ranging from purely economic, to lofty idealism.

Establishing a lunar base using the Interplanetary Transport System (SpaceX)

Establishing a lunar base using the Interplanetary Transport System (SpaceX)

Facilitating these goals, and encouraging SpaceX’s competitors like the United Launch Alliance (a partnership between frenemies Boeing and Lockheed) and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin to pursue a similar strategy to generate revenue, we’ll change the public’s perception of space exploration from something nations do to measure how big their rockets are and how far into space they can shoot their astronauts, to a legitimate career option for millions. Of course, at first, governments may need to invest billions to help cover research, development, and testing by pre-buying first flights and helping train the first astronauts to make the ventures initially more viable, but they would end up saving money on planned missions and contribute greatly to the economy.

Unlike what you hear from the angry griping on social media every time a mission leaves Earth, the money slated for space exploration doesn’t just get launched to another world. The $2.5 billion spent to launch the Curiosity rover to Mars wasn’t just boxed up into the payload fairing of an Atlas V rocket, then hurled upwards somehow mutating into a fully functional robot during its flight. It was used to pay engineers, scientists, programmers, and support staff to build and test the rover, and still pays specialists to drive it on Mars. Likewise, the money spent on space exploration in the future won’t be stacked into pallets and buried in a lunar cave because that won’t build rockets and machines, or select and train astronauts, only paying humans to do so will.

And in the process, we will need to update our infrastructure, spin up R&D efforts, and tackle countless problems that will advance our species and give the economy a massive boost, just like the Apollo program gave us the basic foundations of integrated circuitry and new materials that enabled us to build robots, smartphones, and eventually develop the web, which added millions of jobs and generated trillions of dollars of new wealth. Just like we explored the world to enrich ourselves and discover what our planet had to offer, we’ll explore space to mine extraterrestrial riches and advance our technology to create new jobs and new foundations for the future.

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How Space Will Help Us Undomesticate Ourselves

There’s an argument to be made that industrialization is both one of the best and one of the worst things to happen to us. We invented economies of scale and the financial incentives to create machines that do so much of the heavy lifting for us; it’s very questionable if we really need to work nearly as much as we used to just to keep the wheels of civilization running. But we also worked ourselves into a corner, with highly regimented days and philosophies that reduced us to units of labor in spreadsheets, and trapped millions of us in the tedium of cubicles the color of depression and wafting of ennui.

In effect, we’ve domesticated ourselves, and much like bored house pets that get little in the way of stimulation and exercise, we’re getting far less healthy, both mentally and physically. According to the World Health Organizations, industrializing nations see an increase in depression and anxiety, while post-industrial Europe and the Americas have the worst rates of them in the world. Even worse, our leaders have repeatedly failed to plan for a transition from full-time factory work to creative jobs of the future, which is one of the main reasons why rabid right-wing populism is on the rise, buoyed further by their refusal to tackle climate change.

We need a future where we can once again break free of the same dull routine and see a future outside the four walls of a never-ending series of offices while we wait to hopefully save enough to retire somewhere we actually want to live and finally get to do all their things we want to do. We need a future where machines don’t threaten our jobs but are necessary for them, and the smarter they are, the better we can do those jobs. We need a future where we can be explorers and discoverers, like our ancestors, and get to break new ground or find something never seen before every day. We need a future where we feel like we’re contributing to the betterment of society, not just lining pockets of those playing an arbitrary game with stocks and IOUs.

An astronaut floating above the clouds of Saturn’s moon Triton (Eric Wernquist/Wanderers)

An astronaut floating above the clouds of Saturn’s moon Triton (Eric Wernquist/Wanderers)

So if this is why we’re going to explore space, to create a new future, not just to plant a flag and pat ourselves on the back, we can answer the question of who will be best suited to get us there, government or private industry, and confirm it’s the latter. Otherwise, we will be trusting in the foresight of the same leaders who demonstrated a stunning lack of it over the past 30 years. The leaders who tell us that we can afford to spend trillions to bail out banks gambling on random, exotic math and losing badly, and trillions more on tax cuts that no economist thought were necessary or wise, but another few billion to kick-start a new chapter in our civilization is just too much to ask.

Even now, the Trump administration is trying to put an expiration date on the International Space Station, saying it wants to end funding of our current best platform to test the new generation of deep space-faring technology by 2025. While it’s true that SpaceX and Bigelow Aerospace may be able to put a newer, slightly larger, and more modern replacement for the ISS into orbit with just one launch, whether they can finish testing their hardware in less than seven years is a very open question. Simply put, for our politicians, humanity’s long-term future is simply not a priority and rarely, if ever, has been.

So forget a Star Trek-like future in which Earth united as one and abandoned the very concept of money, working and exploring the universe for the sheer fun of it. Instead, think of something more along the lines of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation; groups of humans still divided by history and culture surviving the rise and fall of different civilizations and governments with trade in all sorts of advanced civilian and military technologies, improving daily lives on one world and arming explorers and soldiers on another, and slowly laying the groundwork for profound changes over the course of centuries.

This is not to say that governments will have no role to play in all this. As we noted, their investment would likely be needed to inject the capital required for essential R&D by aerospace companies, and they can get a return on it by sending scientific payloads and highly trained crews on first missions to new destinations in our solar system. But after the first steps are taken, the first profound quotes are uttered, and a flag is firmly planted for the photo op, industry will need to take over to keep spacecraft flying to that world and set up bases necessary for long-term human habitation.

There is no shortage of volunteers to go into space, and the wealthy seem all too happy to shell out for vacations on the Moon or Mars. We can harness the power of capitalism for an unprecedented transformation of our civilization with just a little push from NASA and the ESA. Certainly, there would be dull routines and boring days, and yes, not everyone will get to go. The future won’t be perfect just because we can hitch a ride off this planet to make some money or go on a tour of an alien landscape. But we’ve seen what happens if we let petty squabbles and maniacal focus on arbitrary numbers, and a lack of imagination drive us, and could argue that maybe we do want to put a few hundred million miles between us and the people who enjoy the results.

Politech // Government / Science / Space / Tech