Eagles and Jet Engines

The SpaceX Dragon docking with the ISS.  Photo courtesy of space.com
The SpaceX Dragon docking with the ISS. Photo courtesy of space.com

I distinctly remember when two NASA astronauts visited my elementary school. They showed off bits and pieces of space technology, talked about how bright a future we’d have (where all of us would be afforded the opportunity to go to space) and generally made a lot of kids really excited.

Like some other things, the space part has not come to pass. Indeed, the US really doesn’t have a space program right now. We don’t even have a launch platform for people. NASA has to rely upon Russia (you know, the former USSR, who has a 10% launch failure on their Proton rocket) for cargo and personnel transport to the International Space Station. It’s fallen to private entrepreneurs to lead the way, such as Branson’s Space Ship Two which looks to be narrowing in on the space tourism gig.

As a SF author, I’ve something of a confession to make. If I could get out there and do this stuff, I would. I’d drop writing in a heartbeat, and take living that life. I’m certain there’s a lot of others who both read and write SF who feel the same. Clearly, some nerds with a lot of money have decided to stop waiting on someone else to make it happen and do it themselves. Richard Branson’s SpaceShipTwo and Elon Musk’s Dragon are two of the better known examples.

So, the question I’m asking… why now? Why has NASA steadily stepped back and why as the federal government essentially stepped out of the space business? Oh, there’s lots of talk about drones and robots, and missions such as the Spirit and Opportunity are great, but what about people?

And why are the private companies (albeit sometimes with trivial subsidies or grants), the ones who are doing the heavy lifting? I think a big portion of it has to do with how drastic the consequences of failure have become in America, and more specifically American politics. Americans, as a whole, have become increasingly risk averse, especially at government levels. A politician who backs a financial (or life-ending) failure will see his career destroyed. A bureaucrat who does the same will have similar consequences. Corporations, such as Boeing or Lockheed Martin, are by necessity, risk adverse. They don’t want the market to change, they want things stable, they’re on top of the market, innovation could jeopardize all of their ongoing profits. There’s a saying that I’ve always liked: Eagles may soar, but weasels don’t get sucked into jet engines.

Entrepreneurs are different. They make their money through innovation, through start ups. They aren’t afraid to fail, and they know how to pick up the pieces afterwards and move on. We’re in a unique position in history right now where money, correctly applied, will allow a private sector individual to leverage a place in the space industry. These people run the risks of the eagles, they’ve put their money and, in some cases, their lives, on the line for their dreams. And that’s something I respect. I think companies such as Musk’s SpaceX and Branson’s Virgin Galactic are keeping space alive and hopefully soon they’ll be expanding the frontiers.

That’s the important part. Keeping us out there and then pushing for greater expansion is essential. Somewhere, right now, I’m certain someone is telling a bunch of kids that they’ll own space when they grow up… it’d be a shame if they were lying to them.

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