The billionaire’s plaything

In the movie Moonraker James Bond has to fight a madman with his own fleet of Space Shuttles. The movie was made in 1979, a golden age for government-subsidized spaceflight. Back then the thought that a man like Hugo Drax could afford a fleet of shuttles was ludicrous. The thought that private businesses could send anything bigger than a breadbox into orbit was silly. Sure the sight of Jaws, the silver-toothed assassin that almost ate Bond’s face, and his odd love interest was funny but the thought that the private sector could build a space shuttle was far funnier.

Fast forward to yesterday when a privately-funded rocket carrying a privately-funded satellite exploded on the launch pad. Luckily no one was hurt but that an industrialist has essentially outpaced government in the realm of daily spaceflight – and that that selfsame industrialist’s rocket blew up on the pad – is at once awful and fascinating.

Spaceflight has always been a human aim, not just a personal one. While we can argue that all government programs lead to some sort of private gain, either through the dispersion of technology into the private sector (think Tang) or the dispersion of cash into contractor’s pockets, we must also argue that the space race was a national ,if not a global, triumph. In the end it doesn’t matter if America or Russia or China won or lost. What matters is that we “slipped the surly bonds of Earth” and saw a way forward for our backward and war-like species.

I’m worried, then, that projects like SpaceX are dangerous. They are not dangerous because they can explode nor because they are locked away inside corporations. I’m worried because we as humans don’t get the share in the joys, the dangers, and the elation that these new technologies bring.

NASA is required by law to share its research. NASA is a seeming government boondoggle that has not only put men on the moon but that has explored mars. It is a shining beacon of intellectualism and science in a dark time and working at NASA used to mean something.

I’m worried because private corporations drain NASA of its brainpower. They snap up research organizations wholesale – just ask Carnegie Mellon’s robotics program about Uber – and try to trap genius with shortsighted equity plays. They blow up a rocket on a launchpad and we chortle. The thought of two of the richest men in California fighting about the loss of an advertising satellite is funny.

But spaceflight is deadly serious. It’s our way off this planet and it proves that we are bigger than ourselves. We are held down by implacable laws of physics and biology and yet we assume that, one day, we’ll board a rocket to Mars the way we board a Greyhound to Toledo. It has to happen, right?

But if the private sector controls the technology, if the private sector controls the launches, and if we consider the private sector’s efforts goofy at best and mundane at worst, we’re losing something important.

I remember the hours after the Challenger exploded. Until that day in January spaceflight had a golden sheen. Space was within our reach. I was eleven. I was in fourth or fifth grade and our teacher wheeled in a big tube TV and turned it on. Some of the students and teachers were crying. Others sat rapt.

I remember the twin horns of the engines twisting off into the blue. I remember the awe on the ground as they watched the launch and the explosion. I remember the joy turned to horror as things went wrong. I remember people saying that a teacher, Christa McAuliffe, was up with them and that she wasn’t coming back. I remember the faces of McAuliffe’s parents staring up at the blue sky wondering what had happened.

Maybe that was the beginning of the end for public spaceflight. Maybe we want government out of space the way we want it out of everything else. But NASA was and is an organization beyond political wrangling, their mission so pure and quixotic that you wonder why our own selfishness allowed it to exist at all. We humans are not normally kind to each other and we do not share. But international space programs are defined by sharing. We have space stations and research-based space centers. Thanks to NASA and other governmental organizations we entered the 21st century arm in arm instead of at each other’s throats simply because open technologies like satellite imaging, GPS, and environmental science helped us all soar higher. It’s hard to blow up the Earth when you can see it whole, its beauty hard, bright, and clear.

Back in 1979 it was ridiculous that a rich man could steal a space shuttle. Now it’s not so ridiculous. Space travel is our right, our goal, and our ultimate defining trait. These days computers dream, robots replace us behind the wheel, and the world groans under our weight. Rockets let us shine as a species, they let us point up and away and go there. I’m not sure they’re quite ready to be a billionaire’s plaything.