Privatising Exploration

By Adam Stevens

Not since Eugene Cernan, Ronald Evans and Harrison Schmitt of Apollo 17 left the orbit of the moon has humanity travelled as far as the twenty-four men that flew the two hundred thousand odd miles to a place that no one really knew much about. Since then, we have never quite reached those same heights, and those twenty-two men could be considered to be the last of the great explorers.

Some say that we’re finished with exploration, that we should look only inwards, at ourselves, at our place on the Earth. Some say that the risks of going further than we have already are too great, that the costs are too high. Yet, deep down, somewhere in our human core, I think that we all realise that this isn’t quite true, that going further is something that we must, something that we have to do. As an inquisitive species we have always been able to look out and take that next step, those people that make the arguments against doing so have never been persuasive enough to stop this step, the extra step that has always made our species great.

Yet, space exploration has an almost unique place amongst humanity’s numerous endeavours. No other feat requires such massive investment in the face of such risk. The exploration of space has always remained the sole concern of nations, national treasuries being the only pockets deep enough to even consider taking the risk. In the end, though, nations are run by governments, and governments are run by politicians, and politicians have constituents, agendas, bias and most importantly, limited time in office, making this a far from ideal situation.

I doubt many people are oblivious to the political motives for Kennedy’s plan to go to the moon, and the Apollo programme will always be remembered as his baby, but in 1969 it was Richard Nixon that talked to Armstrong and Aldrin over the link from the White House to the Moon, and Nixon that looked to axe the program, leaving it in place only after being convinced it could further his political agenda.

So it is frustrating that after forty years of slow but definite progress, space exploration is again facing political and economic pressures that it may not be able to overcome. Many space agencies are finding their funding cut in the wake of recession, with missions having to be cancelled, postponed, or at the very least stripped down. This could leave the new bloods like India and China to become the promising upstarts, indignant in the face of ever present US and Russian unease, willing and eager to inject money into their space programmes.

Even so, it looks like hope may be here and its name, as it so often is, is the commercial sector. Increasingly we hear from big names and governments and agencies that commercial space companies will save the day. It is true that the early signs are positive. Fronted by “benevolent” billionaires like Branson and Musk, some space companies insist they are not just here to exploit, but to contribute, to explore. Behind them some of the most established commercial space ventures that grew up around the satellite communications boom remain quiet, sticking rigidly to their business plans and watching carefully to see how the revolution develops.

While they do this, the celebrity CEOs and their adolescent companies do not remain idle. Virgin Galactic have asked for applications from scientists to make use of dedicated science flights, with payload bays for experiments taking the space normally reserved in SpaceShipTwo for commercial passengers paying $20,000 a flight, and offered those scientists a fairly extensive user manual of what they are offering. SpaceX founder Musk insists that their launch vehicles will put people on Mars many years before even the most optimistic NASA exploration plan is aiming. Clyde Space, a small and very much still noticeably Scottish company, offers low cost, small solutions to those that might otherwise have no access to space and have recently received investment from the UK government to develop some novel advanced space technologies. It is hard not to get excited about what these prospects could bring.

Beneath all this inspiring rhetoric and posturing though, we must remain wary. Another reason that space exploration was largely only ever a national effort is because nations can draw together the best of themselves. The large majority of scientific space missions are designed and built by committee, with consortia of academics and industrial experts working to design a mission, before being delegated out to any number of individual establishments to build the component parts of the overall mission. I’m sure that many would disagree that this was an advantage and some would no doubt call it a weakness, asserting that compromise is never necessary. To put it bluntly, however, engineering is compromise, and if the science of exploration has to bow to the economic streamlining that will inevitably come from being part of a business venture as well as the innumerable constraints and drivers that it already faces, then it will rapidly begin to lose its validity and worth. We must also remember that however benevolent they may sound, these companies will only support exploration for as long as it helps them to make money, or at least as long as it doesn’t lose them any.

The way forward, as it so often does, lies with partnership. The NASA model of subcontracting had its faults, but their record in space exploration stands for itself, and their development of a commercial partnership model appears to take this into account. With commercial businesses and national agencies working together we could, with the right management and consideration, have the best of both their worlds (although this obviously implies that we could be subjected to their worst as well), boosting science and innovation while encouraging economic growth and business expansion all the while.

Because no matter how hard we might try, even taking into account all the dazzling spin out technology, the thousands of jobs created, the investments made, even the inspiration generated, doing a cost benefit analysis for the exploration of space will never come out offering a massive monetary profit, and as well it shouldn’t, because that would ultimately be missing the point.

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0 Responses to Privatising Exploration

  1. I am very sceptical about any major role for the private sector in space exploration, which is quite a different matter from the commercial exploitation of low Earth orbit.

    We also need to remain clear in our minds about what we mean by “space exploration”, and what it is meant to achieve.

    To escape from Earth gravity altogether requires twice as much energy per kilogram payload as it does to reach low Earth orbit. That in itself need not be a major problem. The real problem is getting back. It is relatively easy to get information back, after investing a few tens of millions in developing the appropriate instrumentation. Sending back samples will be more difficult, requiring further developments in robotics, something that should be encouraged for many reasons. Sending back human beings, with all that that implies in the way of support systems, is far more difficult yet, which is why the geologists and planetologists that I have been privileged to work with regard manned missions, as they so correctly regarded the International Space Station, as scientifically irrelevant money pits, draining resources from where they are most needed.

  2. Adam Stevens says:

    I remain sceptical, but commercial companies are making the right noises. The question is whether they follow through on their propaganda.

    It’s interesting that your scientist colleagues think that. The ones I know, myself included, see that human exploration would give ten or more times the science return on a mission. You only have to compare the return from the Apollo missions to any rover/lander/orbiter science (admittedly, not that much) that we have from the moon. The real way forward is a strategic programme that encompasses all of this: telescopic exploration followed by robotic exploration followed by manned exploration, just as it is most likely to be.

    I would also speak against your categorisation of the ISS and similar projects. The ISS has given us a fantastic science return and is still poised to do so further. I was at a talk recently where Kevin Fong made the point that this return has so far come from an undermanned station, a vehicle that takes four active crewmembers just to keep in orbit. We are only just reaching the mature stages of the station and should really wait and see what it can achieve.

    However, you would be quite right in arguing that this science return nowhere near matches what we could have got from any number of similarly funded missions. Yet, we have built a permanent base in space. If we did it again, we’d probably do it differently, and that fact in itself is valuable. But what I try to argue above is that we should move away from this idea of monetary value for these projects. Staying with this mindset is counter productive, especially when no one really has a strategic vision for space.

    Hopefully I’m going to write up an article about the current state of politics and martian exploration – NASAs move away from ExoMars to ensure funding for James Webb nearly made me punch a wall (vested interests…), but I don’t think that JWST is any less valuable that more Mars rovers. My point of view is that we should do both, but I can see why some people think we should do neither.

  3. Alex Wassall says:

    I think the main reason for manned space exploration is that the funding for space exploration is largely at the discretion of policy makers who are influenced by the voting public’s opinion.

    The difference in public interest (and by extension support) between the Apollo landings, the construction of the ISS, even shuttle launches, and unmanned missions to other worlds, speaks for itself.

    In order for space exploration to continue parallel manned and unmanned programs are required; if only for public engagement.

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