The Space Ship 2 Disaster is bringing out the worst in journalism. In this latest article in Wired magazine an attempt is made to separate exploration in space from what the writer considers to be the crass commercial aspect of the Virgin Galactic Space Ship 2 and from what he considers legitimate space exploration. It is clear that the writer does not understand that Richard Branson has what we call in the space business a roadmap to more ambitious and practical human spaceflight applications (Replace the Pan Am Logo in the movie 2001 with the Virgin Logo). He also does not even consider the other aspect which is the effect on those who take these trips to inspire and fire their own visions to support future space enterprises. As one who does this day by day, our biggest problem is money, and government money is not the way to lead to the economic development of the solar system. Thus here is my response to his article:
For reference here is the link to his article:
Adam, your article is an attempt to provide a moral separation between what Virgin Galactic is doing and what Elon Musk and or the government is doing. Your central claim is that what Virgin Galactic is doing is not getting us closer to Mars. In this, as a thirty six year space professional with a commercial space pedigree, you are absolutely incorrect.
There is a huge problem that we have today and that is the lack of vision and forward thinking in leadership positions in government. In the late 1960’s, even before the first man walked on the Moon, congress and the white house cut the funding for the Apollo program sufficient to end the production of the Saturn V. The excuse of the day was deficits, but that is a laugh when the deficit that year was $5 billion dollars. The truth is the money was redirected due to the fear that captured the political elite of the era in control of the government due to the Vietnam war and the problems in our inner cities.
This redirection was not just from NASA’s budget, it affected basically all advanced technology development that the WWII generation put into play in the 50’s and early 60’s. Government advanced technology development has never really recovered. Politicians soon figured out that this redirected money bought votes, and thus piled on more, and have done so for the last 47 years. Today American federal policy is little more than figuring out new programs that will enable the buying of even more votes.
You need look no farther than the space program since then for evidence of this. While the vote buying budget increased by orders of magnitude, space exploration and advanced technology funding has continually shrunk as a proportion of the federal budget. This is shown here in Table 1, in which I took NASA’s budget and normalized it to one and then normalized the rest in relation to NASA. Almost every major government major activity has increased relative to NASA’s since 1966.
In the late 1980’s the Space Exploration Initiative failed because NASA came up with visionary plans, but congress, claiming increased deficits, never funded the program. The exact same thing has recently happened with George Bush Jr.’s Vision for Space Exploration, and the Constellation program. Presidential and congressional commissions one after the other point out that the funding does not match what NASA has been asked to do, and thus with every new failure, the chance of ultimate success of a government directed space program gets smaller.
Now comes the new century. A new generation of companies, run by a new generation of business people, go public and billionaires are made. Some of these people, like Elon Musk and Richard Branson, want to make space accessible to more people. You go out of your way to separate what Elon is doing from what Richard is doing but this separation simply does not exist.
The reason that it does not exist is that with the government’s level of disinterest in space increasing it falls to those with vision and who have capital to risk to pick up the slack. Richard Branson is not just making a tourist vehicle. Virgin is developing a launch vehicle that uses the same infrastructure to put small satellites into space. Richard has also talked about, as a second, third, or fourth generation of Space Ship technology to build vehicles that can take paying passengers from London to Tokyo, Beijing, or Sydney in 90 minutes. As a man who owns an airline with a global reach Richard also tried to buy the Concordes for the reason to make airline travel faster but was rebuffed by British Airways and Air France who did not want to see him succeed where they failed. He sees the Space Ship X technology as a means to leapfrog around this obstacle as he has found ways around obstacles in the past.
Yes it will be richer people who fly these routes, at least initially, just as was the case in the early age of intercontinental air travel. However, there is something else that will result from these flights. That something else is to fire the imagination of the rich people that fly these routes to think about what to do next. Fly higher? Orbital Space? The Moon?
Very recently I spent a day at a major Silicon Valley venture capitalist’s office with about 40 others examining the idea of how we would build a commercial lunar development on the Moon for ten people for five billion dollars. A couple of decades ago such talk was silly, but with the march of commercial technology in launch, robotics, computers, and communications, this is now a realistic possibility. All it takes is for a few people like this, who have the vision, and the financial resources, to make it happen. I know that at least one of these billionaires already has purchased tickets for a Space Ship 2 flight.
Thus the value of the Space Ship 2 flights, and the sacrifice of a good man’s life, is to help show people what is possible, to allow them to experience it, and perhaps to have their imaginations fired to put some of their fortunes up to support more commercial space activities. The government sadly is not on a trajectory to do so, and in many ways they should not be. The economic development of the solar system should not be a state owned and directed enterprise as they simply are not competent to do so.
The last 47 years since congress and the white house turned its back on funding the space program the way it should have been is all the proof of my proposition that is needed. Just think how much different our world would be today had the same percentage (about 4.5%) of the federal budget continued to be spent on space development. Most of the problems that we have today simply would not exist, as we would be much farther along in exploration and the benefits to the economy would have provided the increase in economic activity to fund many of the pressing needs that are otherwise bankrupting the treasury.
Without vision the people perish is a biblical truth that applies universally. The more we do in space, and this includes the few minutes in space that Space Ship 2 will provide, will do more to promote people to think about what else we can do, and how much farther we can go than perhaps any other activity currently going on in commercial space. I love what Elon is doing and I am one of his biggest supporters, but for a long time, that is only going to provide rides to space for a very small number of people. If we can fly several hundred rich people a year into suborbital space, it will change them.
Frank White wrote about this in his book “The Overview Effect” 25 years ago regarding how the astronauts have had their perspectives changed after their flights.
What we need in commercial space today more than anything else is money. The government simply is not going to do what needs to be done, and thus we must convince men and women of capital to do so. The sight of the Earth from a 100 km altitude by rich people may do more to help provide that capital than any other single activity and thus will help to truly open the space frontier for all mankind.