On Pie-in-the-Sky and Commercial Space
Last week two of the so-called commercial space vehicles under development failed in fiery splendor. To some it’s vindication that the “NASA” way is correct. To others it displays the hubris of the billionaires funding these vehicles. Others wonder why we’re even wasting our time with this stuff when there are so many other problems in the world.
Some may think what I’m about to write as corny. Other might see it as far-fetched and pie-in-the-sky (or worse). That’s okay. Because I suspect there will be others who’ll get it. Why go into space? Why spend all the money and time and risk? Why try to cut the cost of space travel?
Why go into space? Because it’s there. Humans have always been a race of explorers. Or at least some of us have been explorers. That’s what drove us up the road to civilization. Not everyone is an explorer. When the American West was opened up in the 19th century, some elected to follow the exhortation to “Go West”, while many others elected to stay in their cities on the East Coast or on their family farms. As I said that’s okay. There should be room for both. When aviation began in its early years during the 1920s some elected to fly with the barnstormers while others elected to remain on the ground and watch. That’s okay, too. Now virtually everyone flies.
Why go into space and why spend all the money and time and risk? To ensure the survival of the human race. As long as we’re stuck on one world we’re vulnerable to destruction. It may be a natural disaster. An asteroid. Or the “ring of fire” volcanoes suddenly erupting. Or simply a plague. It could be human induced climate change. Or maybe a war. If we had substantial settlements on other worlds or in space the human race would survive. Pie-in-the-sky and far-fetched? Maybe. But it’s the pursuit of those pie-in-the-sky and far-fetched dreams that brought us to civilization.
What about the risk? No one is forcing astronauts to fly into space. No one is forcing those who h bought tickets on Virgin Galactic to purchase those tickets. Beyond that, risk is the price of advancement. Remember risk vs. reward. Or that old saying, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Advancement comes at a price, and there are those who are willing to pay that price. There are those who aren’t. That’s fine, too. As for risk, what we’re seeing now is not any different than in the early days of aviation when crashes were far more common. Or even in the early days of the space program. Remember (and I’m dating myself) all those Vanguards blowing up on the launch pad before we finally got a Redstone to work and put the first US satellite into orbit? Remember Apollo One and the three astronauts who died in the fire?
Space is full of natural resources. Solar radiation which can kill is also a source of energy. Ice is plentiful. So is hydrogen. Those we know. We suspect that some of the asteroids may be rich in metals. Pie-in the sky? Maybe. But so was the transcontinental railroad. Or building a plantation in the wilds of Virginia in the 1600s. Some scoff. Some take action. History is full of people who say we can’t or shouldn’t. Fortunately, history of full of those who ignore the nay-sayers.
Why cut the cost of going into space in the face of huge risks? The American West was not really opened up until the transcontinental railroad was built. Airlines weren’t really successful until the DC-3 and later airliners cut the cost and time to travel (as well as improved reliability). Airlines really took off when the airport infrastructure was built. Even the automobile wasn’t going anywhere (excuse the pun) as a means of mass transportation until Henry Ford built the Model T for everyone.
What about those billionaires? If they are driven by ego so what? Isn’t that the definition of an entrepreneur? Someone who is so sure of what they have to do and who may be willing to risk everything. Some say they’re just playing. Well, I guess so were those rich British aristocrats and merchants who funded that plantation in Virginia in the 1600s. So, to Elon Musk and Richard Branson and the others, you have the money and the will. More power to you. Do it. It’s how we got here.
Note: Part of this appeared as a comment on a NY Times article.