It’s no secret that since the space race of the mid-20th Century, lead by the United States, space exploration has become less of a priority in this country. After the end of the Apollo programs NASA commissioned the well used space shuttles which were in operation for well over 20 years but were designed to perform only orbital missions – what actually has been done in terms of space exploration has all been done by unmanned probes.
As NASA continues to set its bar lower with a budgetary allowance to match, American space exploration has continued to stagnate. While some governments are stepping up their programs, like Russia, who will be expanding their program by nearly $70 billion dollars over the course of the next seven years, there has been a strong increase in interest from the private sector to take up the torch of space flight. While any advance in space flight is probably a good thing, there are some potentially long term repercussions that must be considered with this current trend of privatized space flight and its potential to surpass government programs like NASA.
As it is now, though, it is not a competition. Like so many areas in the US public sector, space flight is being out sourced to private contractors who, in this case so far, have performed taxi functions like resupplying the International Space Station or satellite repair. As NASA continues to face budget slashing, they’ve had to turn to companies like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences to perform routine but important missions. As this increasingly becomes standard procedure, it is not hard to believe that many of these companies aspire for much more than orbital missions – mining, colonization and general exploration are some of the serious long term goals laid out by these burgeoning companies.
But who else will do it? NASA has already made it clear, by their recent announcement of their 2014 budget (which includes another $200 million cut), that spacecraft development and missions are not a priority. As the various private companies begin to surpass NASA in this area, the future of space exploration and colonization begins to look a lot less like Star Trek and more like Logan’s Run – here’s why.
First let’s just lay out the very basic patterns the private sector has, over hundreds of years, established and extrapolate from there. The purpose of a business, company or corporation is to increase capital – to generate profits. As I’ve argued before, when the the profit motive is introduced, earnings become demonstrably more important to business than other things – like scientific advancement, environmental responsibility, private property and even human life. It’s why we’ve got a variety of options for medications to give elderly men erections and a lack of Alzheimer’s cures. It’s why corporations like BP and Exxon repeatedly destroy entire ecosystems and disrupt and destroy communities yet do little to change their practices. With such clearly established priorities it is concerning to imagine a future dominated by such a mind-set.
If we look to economic segregation in this nation, from gated communities in California to Scottsdale to Dubai, the wealthiest in this nation and on the planet, in general, do not like to mingle with the rest of us. It’s no secret, really, that they frequently prefer isolation amongst similarly minded individuals. This is especially apparent when you hear such proposals like Glenn Beck’s plans to build a carefully screened community of Randroids in Texas and a similarly premised community in Idaho being called The Citadel. If those seem too tame (or not tame enough, I suppose), there are of course a variety of high-end floating communities in development right now which plan to exist in international waters to be independent and free of government hegemony.
Okay, you might see where I’m going with this. But first there’s another trend I want to point out and couple with that one: A frequent disregard for environmental conservationism and political stability which is usually backed by some variety of denial or dismissal of the real, anthropogenic degradation taking place to the entire planet. So with that in mind along with the undeniable trend of retreatism among libertarian, wealthy elites (as pointed out above) – granting dominance of spaceflight and extra-planetary colonization to such groups is begging to only encourage this trend. The wealthiest on this planet could continue to trash this planets resources while reducing human habitability, at which point they could choose to literally escape it all. At this point one of the only reasons businessmen have for enacting conservationist practices to their industry is because they must drink the same water (eventually) and breathe the same air as the rest of us parasites – now they won’t have to.
Worse yet, if space exploration and colonization is dominated by corporations and private interest it will be the foundations laid for future human civilization. It may sound like science fiction, but talk to any astronomer or astrophysicist – colonization of non-Earth bodies must happen and the way it is done will have repercussions on humanity for decades, centuries to come. And it will, undeniably, be rooted in the way it is initiated and evolves on the outset.
However, there are are some interesting alternatives emerging. Recently Mars One, based out of Holland, has announced its ambitious goal of sending four civilians on a one-way trip to Mars where they will establish the beginnings of a new colony. The twist? Mars One is a non-profit organization which aims to raise a large portion of its mission funding through a Big Brother-style reality show which would document the training of Mars One candidates and eventually their trip to Mars and the establishment of their colony. Though I’m no fan of reality television, it is an intriguing concept and I am sincerely interested in seeing if it succeeds.
In general space exploration and colonization are important for our society both later and now – later, as it increases our species’ survival chance, and now as it inspires us to look hopefully toward that better future that we all must endeavor to create. Look to the Space Age – it was an era that saw both technological and social revolution and, in many respects, was a modern cultural golden age. Unfortunately we allowed our focus to shift from scientific expansion and space to building better fighter jets and remote drones and besting our military competition. Now, in the name of saving money and a wholesale auctioning off of American government agency responsibilities to the private sector over the last 30 years, NASA, the original pioneer in space flight, has no real plans for manned space exploration.
Can we change course before we end up on a path we may end up regretting dearly?