11 November 2014

Our dreams for corporate led astrophysics is lost in space.

NASA and the Soviet space program have transformed the world. It was not enough to inspire millions of children and make us all want to reach for the stars. In order to reach new heights and explore new worlds these programs had to invent their way there and our every day lives have been the beneficiaries. Scratch resistant glass, ear thermometers, memory foam, long distance communications systems, invisible braces, smoke detectors, filtration systems and so on.

Today's mindset that government is inefficient, expensive and broken has taken over much of the American psyche and we have tossed NASA in a permanent penalty box. While we might have dreams of exploring the galaxy or reaching other solar systems, Congress has reminded us how cold it is in space by freezing their funding. The Space Shuttles, astronauts and dreams of fusion reactors are collecting dust in museums where we can pay top dollar to dream of what used to be.

Do not fret, my friends. Private space programs will save us! While government might represent all that is wrong on our small blue marble, corporations represent everything that can go right. Capitalism will ride in on a tidal wave stallion and be able to efficiently ride off with all our astrophysical dreams for a small fraction of the price.

The unfortunate thing about that vision is that rocket science is rocket science. The Space Shuttle cost a small fortune because creating a re-usable space station is so ridiculously complicated that the Soviets gave up after a single launch. Taking every step you can to assure every life is as safe as possible is extremely time consuming. In order to create new inventions to overcome the impossible you need all of the most brilliant minds available focused on that common goal. And, yes.. This stuff is expensive.

This is not to say that corporate involvement is all bad. Elon Musk is a brilliant man and Space X is certainly pushing territory that NASA has talked about but never had the funding to explore. However, he is the exception to the rule. Nearly every other program involves older astronauts using old NASA concepts to beg for money to fund an unrealistic dream. Golden Spike claims they can sell landings on the Moon to anyone willing to fit the bill, despite the fact that they have barely a scrap of evidence they could pull it off. The Mars One program believes they can put people on Mars for six billion dollars, or the smallest fraction of NASA's 600 billion plus estimate. Again - big vision but no proof of concept.

These are dreams and illusions written as mission statements on start-up financing. Richard Branson has some brilliant people working for him and very deep pockets but his dreams of space crashed before even leaving our atmosphere. Imagine what will happen during a stock market crash or, heaven forbid, when we hit our next recession? How many of these companies will survive? Mars One and Golden Spike surely will not.

Then there is the issue of what these programs are giving back to society. While today they are fumbling around to hobble in NASA's disco-era technno shoes, it seems that they are at least a decade away from truly inventing something that could transform every day life. And even if they were lucky enough to survive that long and actually innovate something semi-interesting, there is a near zero chance they will simply give that brilliance away to anyone who wants to use it.

However, the most important issue we face is that the next era of space exploration requires dedication and money bags far larger than any single corporate entity could justify. If we are to regularly visit other planets and eventually other solar systems then we will need trillions of dollars being spent on the most brilliant plans imaginable. For all the brilliance and finances that Mr. Musk brings to the table, he can never match the funding and genius possible by a government that can print their own money. And that, ultimately, is why NASA needs our support and our blank check to take our species to the next frontier.