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Space exploration and filthy lucre

A good article over at Reason by Ronald Bailey, the magazine’s science correspondent. He talks about the factors that explain why humans haven’t been back to the Moon since the early 1970s. It is, he says, because of a lack of profit.

Every time I write something about the incredible feat of putting someone on the Moon, as happened almost exactly 40 years ago, there is an inevitable chorus of criticism – much of it justified – about how the huge sums of taxpayers’ money involved rendered the project beyond the pale, even if the critics grudgingly accept what a great adventure the whole thing was. It has to be accepted that by “crowding out” private space initiatives in the way they did, government agencies both in the US, former USSR and elsewhere have arguably retarded more promising, long-term space ventures that might have got off the ground. The existence of large, politically directed agencies like Nasa do not help innovation, either. Consider how quickly the aircraft design process occured from the Wright Brothers and through to the jet age, and then compare the rate of progress of space flight over the past 40 years. It is not a flattering comparison. So this is precisely why Dale Amon is so right to comment on stuff like this.

The best way to honour the likes the astronauts, both the living, such as Buzz Aldrin, and the dead, such as Gus Grissom, is not to continue down the statist path of space flight. This is too important an issue to leave with bureaucrats.

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12 comments to Space exploration and filthy lucre

  • Robert Sealey

    For me the Apollo programme has always represented Big Government at its best and also, paradoxically, its worst.

    No doubt putting men on the Moon was a stupendous achievement; the result of a lot of work by tens of thousands of extremely smart people. Unfortunately it was done with what was, ultimately, a dead-end technology; routine travel to the Moon, much less Mars and beyond, is not going to be accomplished with expendable rockets. Even more unfortunately, the Moon landings were done at such astronomical cost as to convince most people that manned space exploration is impracticable.

    With hindsight it could be argued that it might have been better had the race to the Moon never occurred. A more sedate approach would have yielded more practical – and less costly – technologies. However, it was probably inevitable given the geopolitical realities of the time: what with the Cold War and the Soviets being the first to put a satellite and then a man into Earth orbit.

  • Dale Amon

    Precisely. I honor the men who went to the Moon, but I also wish we had instead worked our way up through the X-15 to the Dyna-Soar and the MOL via the military, perhaps with lots of lucrative contracts to the then smaller aerospace industry. While still Statist, it would have been less damaging because there would not have been such a gigantic congressional constituency generated as the real end product of the moon race.

    A more measured small steps approach would have allowed commercial manned space flight interests to develop that were more on a par with aviation and not the sole property of a Ministry of Space.

  • Going to the moon was like splurging on a vacation to an exotic resort. It is great fun, with pictures, souvenirs, and some learning about a foreign place.

    Still, you want to go to another place on the next splurge.

  • The Apollo programme was the most expensive science project ever: it was a great achievement, no doubt, and also a total waste of time.

    I’ve had this discussion elsewhere on this wonderful blog, but the argument that somehow NASA `crowded out’ space development is a non-starter.

    Without NASA (and the Russian programme), there would have been, of course, no space exploration at all.

    The reason, as you said, is that there is absoutely no money to be made from outer space, except perhaps for space tourism, which will always be a niche market (like supersonic travel was).

    And, of course, the recent launch of a private space craft says nothing against the above statements, since the latter depended on techology developed by the Apollo project and other programmes.

    As for the development of the airplane, this particular type of engineering went from `Wright bros. to the jet’ largely bec. of government subsidy of aircraft engineering, during world wars I and II, as well as during the Cold War.

    The fact that aircraft have not advanced that much in the last forty years says nothing, in itself, of the relative strength of the private sector vs. government research and development.

    Technologies develop along an arc: initially, there is much innovation, but after this, innovation levels off and engineered technology subsequently undergoes relatively minor improvements.

    great web site, btw, I read it everyday.

  • Eric

    And, of course, the recent launch of a private space craft says nothing against the above statements, since the latter depended on techology developed by the Apollo project and other programmes.

    I don’t see any evidence this is true. What technology are you talking about, specifically?

  • Eric

    Specifically referencing Apollo with that last point.

  • Paul Marks

    I agree with Dale. Whilst all statism is bad all statism is not equally bad.

    The defeat of the military (represented by such things as the X program) by the NASA faction, was a very bad thing. It has led the space effort down a dead end.

  • Jacob

    Ronald Bailey put it right: space exploration will happen when there are profits to be made in it. Profits is what drove all exploration in the past.
    Profits mean utility, usefulness. What is the point of space exploration if it produces no useful results?
    Maybe private space exploration will take off, maybe not. It all hinges on profits. I, for one, being narrow minded, can’t see any profits, anytime soon. I’m probably mistaken, but that’s how I see it.

  • Laird

    “Profit” is the difference between revenue and total costs. There are plenty of very useful things which could be done in space (with its zero gravity, near absolute zero temperature, abundant solar energy, etc.); the problem is that the cost of getting out there to do all those useful things is more than they are worth. What is needed is a radically different (i.e., significantly cheaper) means of lifting things out of the earth’s gravity well. Brute force (rockets) is unlikely to fit the bill, ever. Much as I like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and all the other private space ventures, I sure hope someone somewhere is doing some way-outside-the-box creative thinking about alternative methods (space elevators, mass drivers, slings, whatever).

  • “…much of it justified…”?

    See Billy:
    Crucial Distinctions

  • Chazz

    My first engineering job was in the Advanced Development department of a major aerospace company working on the Apollo program. Those were interesting times and I wrote about them frequently in letters to my parents. While cleaning out some old storage boxes recently, I encountered some of those letters that Mom had saved. The general thinking back then was that after the Moon landing, we would eventually go on to Mars with manned flights, but that thereafter, further space exploration could only reasonably be done by unmanned vehicles. It was thus tacitly recognized in our conferences that Apollo was ultimately a peaceful alternative to warfare for jump starting technical advances in America. In that respect, I think the program was a success.

  • Paul Marks

    Neither warfare nor government subsidy of space flight can be justified on the basis that they jump start technical advances. See “What is seen and what is unseen” by Bastiat for a refutation of this type of thinking.

    Both war and government space flight may be justifiable on other grounds – but not on economic ones.