Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Next Big Space Project

Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan have written an opinion piece in USA Today accusing Obama of killing America's space program and destroying America's leadership in space.

(See: USA Today: Is Obama grounding JFK's space legacy?)

I hold the opposite view. Obama's vision for space development was the best things and most hopeful plan I have seen since Apollo – at least until Congress ran over it – severely wounding (though not entirely killing) it.

As I see it, Armstrong, Lovell, and Cernan, as well as a great many space activists, are simply stuck in the past. They want to relive the glory days in which a President steps up to the microphone to announce to the nation another grand space project comparable to Apollo, whereby the nation rallies around the cause and agrees to devote massive amounts of will and resources reaching this grand and glorious goal.

Because Obama did not do that, he deserves their contempt. On the other hand, they had praise for Bush, who offered a plan that fit this model – the Constellation project.

However, these types of huge programs are substantially worthless.

The Apollo program was not worthless. It served its purpose as a proxy war with the Soviet Union that accomplished something great – much better than destroying half the world with a rain of nuclear weapons. However, we have no proxy war to fight now. That is precisely why we lack the public will to have another program like Apollo.

When Apollo 11 landed on the moon, the proxy war ended. We had won. Immediately after this – well before Apollo 13 even launched, the United States had moved it. The game was over. But, unfortunately, some of the players in that game have not gotten used to the idea that the game has ended. They want to keep playing the same old game.

It’s not difficult to understand this attitude. While the game was being played, they were national heroes. They still live in the glory of that wonderful victory that they pulled off against the Soviet Union. Wanting to relive (at least by proxy) their glory days, they demand more of the same. Because the President does not wish to provide it, they accuse the President of ruining America.

That game is over. It ended 40 years ago. It was a great effort. We won. That's something to be proud of (and something to feel a great deal of relief over). But that game has ended. It is time to move on.

Going forward, we need a space program that makes sense in the 21st century, not an instant replay of cold-war posturing.

The new space program does not consist of proxy-war projects headed by a government bureaucracy. It is to be found in the efforts of companies such as SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Bigalow, SpaceDev, and Armadillo.

I have intentionally left Lockheed and Boeing off of this list. These companies made a great deal of money supporting the proxy war of the 1960s and its aftermath. They have a great deal of incentive to see the proxy-war form of project continue. Their laziness and lack of innovation is exactly what makes the smaller companies listed in the previous program viable. The biggest threat those other companies face is that these giants might actually decide to become entrepreneurs again.

In saying this, it is also the case that space development is a public good that deserves some amount of public support. Ultimately, space development is the best hope we have for the long-term survival of the human race. The possibility of setting up a set of diverse and independent cultures will allow for a degree of social experimentation in different political and social models that we have not seen in nearly two centuries.

These benefits argue that governments should invest some money in these projects. However, that investment should be consistent with harvesting the public goods that space development promises to provide. This is NOT done by announcing another Apollo-style proxy war project. This is done by offering support for projects that lie in the same direction as the profit-making opportunities that private companies have identified.

America is in the forefront of the computer industry. However, we do not keep our lead by having the President announce hundred-billion dollar projects to build the largest and fastest computer. It happens because American entrepreneurs realize that there is a profit to be made in making and selling computers that serve real human needs. The effect of a hundred-billion dollar computer project would not be to ensure American leadership, but to divert a hundred billion dollars from productive computer development that serves human needs into a public computer project that exists merely for show.

We might get a few useful spinoffs from another proxy war type space project - but we would also get spinoffs from a hundred-billion project to dig the biggest hole we can dig in 10 years and filling it in again, or a hundred billion dollar project to make the largest possible ball of string (or pyramid).

Here, again, I come back to the notion that the Apollo program was a proxy war. Yes, the Apollo program produced a great many technological innovations that ultimately proved useful. But not nearly as many - and not in nearly as short a time - as did World War II. Proxy wars, like real wars, are great at producing these types of benefits. But that does not make them worth the cost.

We do not need, and it does not serve our national interests, to have another huge proxy-war space project. What we need is for the government to provide what help it can to whatever private initiatives people can imagine that aim to serve real needs and interests.

We need to stop living in the 1960s and start living in the 2010s.

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