Last week’s dual tragedies for the commercial space industry once more have tongues wagging on “how risky” spaceflight is and questioning whether private companies should be in the business. The answer to that couldn’t be a more emphatic “YES!” I was happy to see Richard Branson, who owns Virgin Galactic, partner and parent to the venture, echo that sentiment.
First came the explosion of Orbital Sciences’ Antares launch vehicle just off the pad at the Virginia Launch site. Three days later Scaled Composites SpaceShipTwo suffered a catastrophic engine failure and crashed in the Mojave Desert, in California, killing one pilot and severely injuring the other. Immediately that set-off the ignorant and supporters of government space programs who, of course, make no mention of how many rocket and spacecraft explosions have occurred and continue to occur during the entire history of spaceflight development. Or the number of aircraft failures still occur after more than 100 years of aviation.
The criticism is not only extremely misguided but actually dangerous to all of mankind’s future. Relying on government space endeavors, regardless of their success or failure, is ultimately a losing proposition and is the ultimate risk to the development of near AND deep space. Notice I did not mention the word “exploration.” That’s because exploration is an automatic byproduct of commercial development as it always was in the history of opening new frontiers.
Why did the early explorers, do most of their exploration? For resources and trade goods, not research and development. The Spanish and other european explorers were looking for spices, trade goods and gold. The “Mountain Men” were looking for fur pelts and metals. The pioneers were looking for good land to farm. The first goal and endeavor in opening new frontiers was typically an economic one.
If spaceflight, and particularly manned spaceflight, is left to government it will never get much past the research and development and early exploratory stage. That’s the main reason the moon still sits vacant and undeveloped 40 years since the last NASA mission there. NASA Manned Spaceflight has truncated commercial manned and unmanned spaceflight, merely by its existence, thereby relegating it to low earth orbit (LEO) for decades.
The internet is the best teacher here as to how and why full commercialization works so well. From it’s inception in 1969 until commercialization began in 1984 (15 years) the internet developed and expanded very slowly as a government research and, then, operational enterprise. By the time of it’s commercialization it had only grown to approximately 1100 total switching nodes and under 500,000 connected users. It was only available within the agencies of government and a few outside contractors or researchers, kept under its watchful eye and away from the profit-making (sustainable) side.
In the next 15 years, after commercialization, the internet grew to approximately 155 million switching nodes and over 360 million users by 2000. Total switching nodes today (another 15 years) is over 500 million and the total user population by 2013 was over 2.8 billion.
For more than two decades this author has continually trumpeted the need for such ventures that can only be sustainable if they are made profitable, free from government interference and control. Otherwise, left up to the vagaries of district politics, the government budget and fiscal cycle, no venture can survive very long term as a government project. It will eventually die on the vine as has the NASA space program.
If made or kept as in-house government programs, very few of the best inventions and technologies would have proliferated very far. Not electrical power, radio/TV, automobiles or airplanes and the aviation industry. Most of us would still be lighting kerosene lamps or reading by the fire and walking or riding horse or carriage to town to take the train across country. Contemplate that for a couple minutes. The same applies to space development.
However, there’s another little talked about imperative involved for generating the long-term profitable and sustainable development of near-space: Survival of the species. In two more recent articles, here and here, I posited some of the imperatives surrounding the issue of survival. We waste an enormous amount of the energy, and productive wealth we do create, on war or destructive economic and social policies. Some of the worst practitioners of that destruction surround energy and environmental policy.
The example best used here is in the lack of development in the area of 4G nuclear power. Fourth generation reactors offer, by far, the best way to eliminate carbon-based energy production. Whether one believes in Anthropogenic Climate Change or not is irrelevant. From every objective criteria, 4G nuclear power is the only current and available long-term solution that will get us to a near carbon-free world safely, reliably, cheaply and within a reasonable time-frame. There are many similar examples where subjective and irrational political agendas are greatly diminishing mankind’s chances for survival.
Taken together, there are a few very simple but enormous fundamental steps that must be undertaken. Not to save the planet, for planet earth will continue on, just fine, far into the future whether we’re still on board or not. This effort is to save and keep Mankind from becoming extinct through a series of those “very simple but enormous fundamental steps” not being taken.
- The encouragement and actual reform of every level of government; local, state and federal to reflect universal liberty and minimum government interference beyond essential domestic protections and defense from any outside aggressor. The elimination of top-down structures of government control.
- Protecting and maintaining the necessary communications platform in place through the global internet. It only need continue to expand and advance as it already has without any further government interference.
- A stable, readily available, cheap and endless energy source in 4G nuclear power, which is the basic fuel to the economic engine that can drive all other endeavors.
- A large-scale, near-space development and commercialization program independent of government that can replace the extraction of key terrestrial metals, rare earths and elements necessary to maintain modern technologic infrastructure.
- The encouragement of similar steps by every other developed or emerging nation now developing.
Those five steps comprise nearly everything needed to keep mankind from destroying itself and preparing for much larger challenges of survival. They are the key items for prospering in a far greater civilization than any of our ancestors had ever even contemplated. Can we afford to continue to ignore them?