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We Have to Go for an Ideal

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Industry | July 23, 2010 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Industry | July 23, 2010 |

“Is Stark Industries an Appropriate Model for Private-Industry Space Exploration?” It’s a cute question around which to form a panel, hooking a serious topic to something entertaining while at the same time using it as a perfect metaphor for the crisis of identity in the space industry. The bottom line is that NASA is considered hopelessly broken by many who care about the final frontier, a feeling reinforced by the decades-long stall in any real progress since the Soviets dropped out of the space race by default. The last few years have seen a resurgence in interest as private companies have picked up the reins of innovation. These little guys are in a lot of ways hopelessly behind the giant corporations like Lockheed that provide NASA with its rockets, celebrating accomplishments that were old hat to NASA back in the sixties. On the other hand, these start-up companies have started winning contracts for launching satellites because their streamlined, cut-to-the-bone approach has won them cost advantages over the big guys.

The panel was composed of a number of engineers from the various small companies, and they quickly modified the question to be a more accurate mapping of the movie to the reality of space flight. Is the future of space flight Stark Industries, the giant corporate behemoth with government contracts and private jets, or is the future Tony Stark constructing miracles in the basement?

Obviously the panel was biased, with the big companies having no representation whatsoever. But it’s a Comic-Con panel, not an impartial jury, so we’ll take what we can get. One of the primary criticisms was that the big companies had absolutely no incentive to experiment in order to make space flight affordable, that they made a comfortable profit and could not justify sinking money into experimental R&D. A panelist, a bio-medical engineer who worked on spacesuit design at a start-up, gave the example of Boeing’s construction of new airliners. They have designs that work. When they build a new plane, it’s more a matter of tweaking, of incremental improvement. But the problem with that is that revolutions in capability do not happen incrementally, they come from trying new things and learning from the failures. “When I was earning my Ph.D. in particle physics, the dumbest guys I knew were the ones looking for jobs with NASA,” said another panelist.

“NASA is like the March of Dimes Foundation,” another argued, pointing out that they did great things in the past, but had deteriorated into dead end of a bureaucracy. March of Dimes cured polio, but then persisted as a bureaucracy criticized for massive overhead and waste.

And there is a problem to be solved, a problem to which the panelists did not have an answer. Launching mass into space costs $5000 per pound. That would be $1,000,000 to put a fairly average guy into orbit, not taking into account all the food, air, water, and fuel he’d need once he was up there. For all the talk of space tourism, that’s a hell of a long way from the $29.99 Los Angeles to San Francisco special. One of the panelists put it into even starker terms of calculation. Any fuel used in space needs launched into orbit from Earth, and it would take a million pounds of fuel to get a person from Earth to Mars. That’s $5 billion to get one person to make the trip, before taking into account all the things needed to keep them alive. NASA’s budget is only $18 billion per year, and much of that is tied up in politically mandated projects.

Of course, the panelists noted, if they had Iron Man’s arc reactors, this would all be a moot point. There was a distinct hunger there, a desire to figure out new perspectives that could solve the insolvable. Wozniak was cited as an example, the way he left HP after they couldn’t appreciate the computer that anyone could use that he built in the basement.

A series of audience members asked questions, each citing a more elaborate college degree than the last, until finally a rough cut young man looking to have just come from the beach stepped up to the microphone. “Well, I just work at a coffee shop,” he said, and proceeded to ask the classic question that torments those who dream of the stars. “Why should we spending all this money launching a few people up into space? Shouldn’t we solve the problems we have down here first?”

I hammer home his self deprecating manner, his humble occupation, not to emphasize ignorance but to applaud the sheer guts it took to stand up to a panel of PhDs and ask them to simply justify what they were doing. And also to emphasize exactly the question that lovers of space exploration must be prepared to answer. One panelist pointed out that the amount of money being spent was a drop in the bucket, that NASA’s entire budget would fit dozens of times over in the Pentagon’s budget, or the Social Security Administration’s. Of course, another pointed out the truism that “we have always had problems and we always will. If we waited until our problems were solved before doing anything, we’d never do anything at all.”

Several panelists eagerly pointed out that space exploration had many avenues of potentially paying for itself. Space tourism for one, solar power production for another, and of course the oft cited proposition to mine asteroids. But one of the panelists spoke quite eloquently against these false hopes. “I have run the numbers. There is no cost benefit analysis that can justify going to space.” Even if the asteroids were pure platinum or diamond, mining them would be orders of magnitude from being profitable. “We have to go for an ideal.”

Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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