The Obama administration recently released its NASA budget with the expected, but still surprising intention to end the Constellation program and increase funding for developing commercial space flight. I must admit, I am very excited about the prospects here. The Ansari X prize managed to get over 100 million dollars in development in five years with just a 10 million dollar prize. Private companies, as Phil Plait noted in his excellent post on the topic, have still not put a person into orbit, but some are close. Another X Prize, this time funded by NASA with some “we get to rent seats on your tech when we need them” strings attached, could revitalize orbital space travel. It currently costs half a billion dollars per launch of the shuttle, a forty year-old piece of technology that has proven fatally unsafe two times too many.
Reactions have been mixed. I found it hilarious that the British Times would get so up-in-arms over the situation, given that the UK’s contributions to space exploration hover somewhere between diddly-squat and Moonraker. But therein is one of the problems with space exploration as it is. It has to be defended on the grounds of “science for science’s sake” which is never really the reason something is done. Most of the technological development of the past century has been spurred on by either commercial or military need. Very few advances have been “because it is there” sort of events. CERN and the LHC are perhaps the single best examples of truly science for science’s sake research. But the LHC is an enormous international project, which leads us to the next point: space will become international.
As it is, the US has near total dominance in terms of space exploration. This dominance is due both to its superior technology and that it is one of the only entities in the world that is exploring space. The proliferation of other countries and, hopefully, companies exploring space means one very important thing: more exciting jobs for scientists and thinkers. Right now, if you want to study space, say by sending a robot to Mars, you have to team up with NASA. They are literally your only option. There are only so many jobs at NASA, and they only have so many missions a year. If you don’t get in with them, you can maybe try the Russians, but even still, that’s only two choices.
Now imagine if there were ten major space companies, one of which was the Google or Apple or Honda of space travel. Reliable, high quality, high value, and constantly on the cutting edge at a price within your range. Imagine if universities could easily afford to send satellites into orbit or rovers to other planets. Instead of the impact of putting another set of people on the Moon, imagine the influence of having classmates building and controlling robots on other planets would have on our culture. Think about how much news the Ansari X prize generated for Branson and Rutan when they won. How much more are they going to have with their first commercial flight? Or when their business becomes regular, and they launch two or three flights a week? What about when they get a competitor who takes the customer higher, farther, longer?
Some may argue, “but Branson’s commercialized space flight means only the wealthy get to go to space.” Right now, only the super-ultra wealthy get to go. Of the over six billion people currently alive on the planet, only about 500 people have been to space. If Virgin Galactic becomes successful, it may only cost a quarter of a million dollars to go to space. At that price, there could be game shows where top prize is a flight on Virgin Space Ship. Millions of people would have the opportunity to go. By the time “Space Vacation” is a prize on Wheel of Fortune, Virgin will probably be competing for the next X prize, something like building a spaceport on the Moon and universities will be regularly sending graduate students into space. Commercialization has me very excited.
Bioethics is controversial.
No one endorses the ideas or concepts explored here, not even me.
You will develop a strong opinion about something you find here. I want to hear it. Philosophy is a conversation.
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