Barack Obama spoke last week about his vision for America’s space program. Space, an almost unimaginably huge place of infinite discovery, is reduced to another program of government subsidies and another set of pronouncements to bolster nationalist pride and the perception that the government creates jobs.
Sure, government space agencies have done some unquestionably great things, but what has the long-held government monopoly on space travel prevented from being seen? Compare the electronics of the Apollo days to those of today. Then compare this progress to the progress of government space programs. As private space flight challenges the state more and more, the government seeks to subsidize and control it. It remains to be seen whether space industry cooperation with government will have the same empire-building effect as when railroad companies cooperated with government in the nineteenth century.
Government involvement in an enterprise changes the form that its profitability takes. For space travel to move forward, somebody has to see enough profit in it enough to justify the investment of time, resources, and risk. This doesn’t mean that a price tag needs to be hung upon each new discovery , but discoveries have to benefit someone. The more political control is involved, the more incentives will be based on satisfying the goals of power structures.
What does space offer free individuals?
There is a lot of space to live in beyond the atmosphere. So long as humans are free to move and create, overpopulation cannot become a problem. Since people choose to live in some of the most inhospitable environments on Earth, why wouldn’t people settle on floating rocks and human-made orbiters?
Settlement outside of Earth would be one part of species survival insurance. It might not happen within the lifetime of anyone alive right now, but it is really only a matter of geologic time before a massive object collides with the Earth, causing innumerable deaths or even planetary extinctions. Sufficient space technology and an economy to support it would allow these objects to be discovered, redirected, and mined, instead of killing billions of people.
Space is full of other resources that could make individual lives better. New methods to extract valuable minerals can undoubtedly be discovered.
Space travel will further propel the human drive for discovery, and the new experiences will undoubtedly broaden the philosophical and scientific perspectives that our species is capable of. This drive to discover and create is one of the positive attributes of humanity which space travel could further cultivate. This isn’t to say that space travel will automatically refine humanity, but it would undoubtedly have an effect. If space is approached from the angle of free individuals attempting to make life better, utilizing space can speed the progress of improvement.
What does space offer government?
Space is another platform of control. Military satellites and monopolization of certain areas of science have historically been the primary government uses for space.
Space is also a matter of nationalist pride. The old Space Race was another proxy of Cold War rivalry, a way for rulers to measure lances against each other that entailed less risk of losing power than open war against the other superpower would. Today, falling behind in space power is seen as a blow to national supremacy. So the government offers subsidies to keep the national space program waving the flag.
Of course, international unity only means that the top gangs cooperate. They still view success in space as triumphs of political power. Whether Obama is referring to the United States as a collective or humanity as a collective when he says that “we” have already been to the moon, the fact remains that they did not intend the moon to be for common folk.
Will government get any humans to Mars or the asteroids, as Obama promises? His proposals sound more like a grandstanding pronouncement from some Soviet planning committee or tin-pot dictator than they sound like a reasonable probability.
If space is to be more than a government jobs program, a source of prestige for politicians, a playground for the ultra-rich, or a new domain of drudgery and exploitation, then the values of liberty and discovery must be cultivated on Earth with the desire to carry them into the heavens where they will be shaped anew.
(The Reuters article on Obama’s speech can be found at http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE63C3FJ20100415)