Proposal for crowd-funded, post-national space exploration.
In 1961 mankind flew up on a rocket ship and visited space for the first time in its three million year history of tool use. The ideas, concepts, and the very science of that voyage originated long before the golden sixties. Rockets were used as an engine of war as early as the thirteenth century by the Chinese in their attempts to ward of Mongol invasions.
But it wasn’t until the late 19th century that another use for these fiery contrivances was contemplated: A mode of transport. Spurred on by science-fiction writers like Jules Verne and H.G. Welles, Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky wrote a paper in 1901 called “The Exploration of Cosmic Space by Means of Reaction Devices”. Robert Goddard, an American pioneer proposed a multi-stage rocket as early as 1915. Hermann Oberth, a German trailblazer built his first model rocket in 1908. He was 14 at the time. It would take almost half a century before governments decided to systematically pour money into the venture. Goddard hardly received any public funding at all.
Charles Lindbergh, who saw the potential of rocket-propelled aviation, put his fame to work in an attempt to secure private funding for Goddard’s efforts. Additionally, despite the stock market crash, the Guggenheim family began funding his work with a grant worth 1,6 million of today’s Dollars. After brief government interest during World War I, public financing began to take off in earnest up to and during WWII. The money then increased exponentially throughout the first half of the Cold War. Many exciting things were achieved –most of which improved life here on earth in countless, measurable ways.
The problem with government-funded space research. Space exploration, although in its most public and spectacular emanations such as the Apollo moon program a civilian affair, has been the near exclusive domain of nations’ military establishments. Although as far as we know to date no weapons have been placed in space or on the moon, the United States aimed first and foremost to beat the Soviets in a propaganda battle between superpowers. Science came a distant second. Nation states logically perceive space as a strategic asset, a Mount Olympus from which to defend against or assail other nation states.
The United States Air Force (military) Space Command for instance today counts 47.000 men and women against (civilian) NASA’s 19.000. A disproportionate amount of funding goes to those projects and technologies that have defense applications, not the ones that further human knowledge or enhance, say, climate protection. Democratic governments are rightly responsive to constituents’ wishes. Sometimes they are not, like when they decide to go to war.
Sometimes, unreflective of the public’s apathy for certain endeavors, they do go ‘out there’. Like CERN, Europe’s particle research center. Building a 27-kilometer circular tunnel underground to find out what crumbs lurk inside a smidgen of a smidgen of a smidgen of an atom is hardly at the top of the average mortgage-paying family’s wish list. Let alone paying 700 million Euros a year for upkeep, even if the check is split among 20 countries. American scientists found that out the hard way when Congress pulled the plug on a similar project right about when it had progressed to a-giant-hole-in-Texas stage. High science is a niche, and probably always will be.
Space, the highest of them all, tops it. International cooperation. One mechanism to unshackle the worthy cause of fundamental scientific research from budget-cutting representatives is for multiple countries to join hands. The International Space Station is an obvious example. Yet here too, politics tends to trump science.
While the ISS is indeed a potent symbol of post cold-war cooperation among former foes, its scientific achievements pale in comparison to the staggering cost. To make things worse, one or more countries pulling out might scupper at any given moment a decade’s worth of lobbing over two hundred tons of beams at the sky. The next Mars rover “Opportunity”, pooling American and European resources could be a good example of collaboration but for it to truly be ‘international’ far more nations should be involved.
Rather, it seems that the coming scramble for precious lunar resources, and the ultimate prestige of a human foot on Mars (attached to a living, breathing astro-, taiko-, kosmo-, or euro-naut) will entice another round of competition rather than cooperation. International collaboration, short of a truly global effort, will not produce the advances that are necessary to tackle practical issues such as global warming, stopping an asteroid hurtling towards earth, nor to answer the fundamental, age-old questions like whether or not we are alone in the universe.
Providing thrill rides to space for the world’s well-heeled, both individuals as well as for instance pharmaceutical researchers, opens up some interesting avenues. A steady stream of income, unencumbered by the occasional government deficit, will do wonders to advance basic enabling technologies like propulsion, and space habitation. Hence, recent developments of private companies like Scaled Composites and SpaceX, spurred on by venture capital and lavish government subsidies, add an important piece to the puzzle.
Yet it remains to be seen whether they can deliver on audacious promises. More importantly, it is likely ventures of a purely profit-seeking nature, will not use those enabling technologies to engage in fundamental research. Beyond.. In some countries it is optional for citizens to pay taxes toward maintaining religious institutions. After all, not everybody believes in God. Citizens are not given that choice in other matters of state expenditure like defense or, indeed, space exploration. Not everybody believes that public money should literally be combusted in pursuit of celestial bodies.
For idealists and dreamers on the other hand, things can hardly go fast enough, and the sky is no longer the limit. SETI, otherwise known as the quixotic machinery designed to receive ET phone calls, popularized by Jodi Foster’s performance in “Contact”, ran into financial trouble recently. It was saved by a global internet-based collection round. Nerds of the world unite, if you will. A template for aspiring Luke Skywalkers. But seriously…
And then some.
A crowd-sourced, post-national space exploration venture would preferably be based in international waters, or a neutral and stable country near the equator. It would boldly go where fickle nations can’t afford to go, and do what private companies don’t figure profitable. Contributions would come from basement sci-fi fans to visionary CEO’s. Anyone with a dollar to spare and an intellectual stake in exploration for exploration’s sake. Projects could range from developing next-generation propulsion systems, fancy space-based telescopes, to fully-fledged colonization of Mars.
Space is simply too expensive, too risky, and too big for any single nation, let alone individual, to explore. Furthermore, a successful post-national, crowd-funded model for space could be used as a template to tackle other huge, and non profit-generating problems. How about a crowd-sourced, non-commercial venture to cure cancer, malaria, or AIDS? A global no-strings-attached project to improve agriculture? The possibilities are as limitless as space itself.