The State Versus the Final Frontier

On July 21st, 1969, Apollo 11 astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong became the first human beings to land on the moon. Just short of 3 1/2 years, Eugene Cernan and Jack Schmitt became the last humans to date to repeat the accomplishment. A grand total of 12 human beings, all Americans, have set foot on Earth’s nearest neighbor.

That shouldn’t be surprising: The moon landings were part and parcel of a political “space race” between the US and Soviet governments. The intent behind that race wasn’t to open a gateway to the stars for humankind; it was to score stature points in the decades-long game of “Cold War” posturing. As President John F. Kennedy allegedly told NASA director James Webb, “Everything we do ought to really be tied in to getting on to the Moon ahead of the Russians […] otherwise we shouldn’t be spending that kind of money, because I’m not interested in space […] The only justification for [the cost] is because we hope to beat [the USSR] to demonstrate that instead of being behind by a couple of years, by God, we passed them.”

Since the suspension of the lunar landing program, government-dominated manned space travel has been limited to things like hoisting military and commercial satellites into, and doing limited scientific research in, Earth’s orbit. Exploration of the rest of the solar system — of the rest of the universe — has been limited to unmanned missions, and government space agencies have jealously guarded against (and in some cases brutally suppressed) private sector efforts to slip the surly bonds of Earth.

That jealous guardianship has recently begun to relax somewhat. Fans of private space exploration cheered on June 21st, 2004 as Mike Melvill, flying Scaled Composites’ craft SpaceShipOne, reached an altitude of 100 kilometers and became the first non-government astronaut. With two subsequent flights, Melvill and Mike Binnie won the Ansari X-Prize for Scaled Composites for fielding the first non-government, reusable, manned spacecraft.

Still, the state remains the dominant force in space travel and offers every indication of intending to maintain that dominance. There are two good (from government’s point of view) reasons for it to do so.

First, space travel is costly — and likely to remain more costly the longer government retains a grip on it. That means big money for NASA’s bureaucracy, and for privileged government contractors who produce expensive parts for expensive spacecraft. For the military-industrial complex, space exploration is just another way of siphoning money out of your pockets and into theirs through political pull rather than through free exchange. NASA’s FY2009 budget is $17.2 billion. That ain’t chump change — and NASA scatters that money over facilities scattered around the country, buying votes for its congressional patrons with every dollar spent.

Secondly, put yourself in a state official’s place for a moment. Imagine that you’re considering the merits of establishing a permanent colony on — to pick a planet not at random — Mars.

Yes, it’s a big, long-term project: Lots of job security for you, lots of money in play for your buddies at Boeing et al.

On the other hand, what you’re considering is sending a group of human beings to a new home 55 million kilometers from Earth (at its closest approach), and necessarily sending with them the technology to become self-sufficient.

Now ask yourself:

How long before that group decides that the natural next step beyond self-sufficiency is independence?

How long before you transmit the latest government regulation, order or edict to your “colonists,” wait a few minutes (minimum transmission time of about three light-minutes each way) for confirmation, and instead watch a digitized photo of someone’s middle finger roll off the printer in response?

For that matter, the moon is only 385,000 kilometers away … a lot farther than any expeditionary force has been sent to discipline recalcitrant “colonists” before, and it sits at the top of a deep gravity well. Easy for them to throw stuff at you; hard for you to throw stuff at them. Science fiction fans are probably familiar with Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, based on precisely such a scenario.

Bottom line: If you want to get off this rock, don’t expect government to help. Its incentives, both positive and negative, run in the opposite direction. Keeping you here is a lot more lucrative and a lot less risky. Eventually, you’re going to have to ask yourself which you value more — the stars or the state. You can’t have both.

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