The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Dragon and K-1
The latest issue of the Utne Reader debates what role private companies should have in space, and whether humans should be out there at all. (credit: Utne)

A progressive view of space exploration

The space community often seems to have a love-hate relationship with the mainstream media. They love it when a major general publication runs a cover article or other major story on a space topic (and sometimes bitterly complain when space gets overlooked), but often cringe at what’s actually written. A case in point is an article earlier this year in Rolling Stone on plans for the human exploration of Mars: the good news is that the magazine devoted over 6,000 words to the topic, but the bad news is that the article was riddled with so many errors as to border on being incoherent. (See “Getting Stoned on Mars”, The Space Review, March 20, 2006.) More recently, the Washington Post devoted a front-page story to the new national space policy, but focused on a small portion of it that appeared to support space weaponization (See “Not really lost in space: the new National Space Policy”, The Space Review, this issue.)

So what happens when a publication a little out of the mainstream, but still not generally associated with any aspect of space, takes up the topic? The December issue of the Utne Reader devotes its cover, improbably enough, to public and private spaceflight: a whimsical illustration shows a man in early 20th century aviator togs standing on a V-2-like rocket, holding on for dear life to a strap wound around the rocket as it zooms over a landscape. The headline: “Earth Attacks!! Mad Scientists, Crazed Capitalists, UFOs, and the Race to Conquer the Cosmos”. Mad scientists? Crazed capitalists? No doubt some of you are already cringing.

The space community loves it when a major general publication runs a cover article or other major story on a space topic, but often cringe at what’s actually written.

So how bad is it? The half-dozen pieces that make up the special section on space, primarily short essays no more than a page or two long, represent a mix of topics and approaches. One item is simply an eclectic list of songs that have some kind of link to space (in the title, if nothing else): a bit of humor to fill up half a page. Another essay claims that the mainstream media is not doing enough to investigate evidence of UFOs, supporting his claims with references to obscure reports and books; other than to sigh about its inclusion in the magazine, it doesn’t warrant further discussion. The rest of the essays, though, look at the emerging new commercial space industry and whether that, or space exploration in general, is a good thing—revealing some interesting perceptions, or misperceptions, in the process.

Public vs. private

For those readers not familiar with the Utne Reader, some background is in order. On its web site, the magazine describes itself as a publication that “reprints the best articles from over 2,000 alternative media sources bringing you the latest ideas and trends emerging in our culture… The best of the alternative media.” From that description, and its emphasis on “alternative media”, you’d expect the magazine to have a progressive (or liberal) slant. And you would be right: besides the special section on space, the December issue includes articles on “eco-friendly” ski resorts and how to have a “green” wedding. Ads in the issue range from Amnesty International and indie musicians to a special advertising section on “fair trade” coffee.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that some of the essays cast a skeptical eye on the new generation of emerging space companies who seek to a bigger role for the private sector in space. In the essay “Infinity or Bust”, Utne assistant editor Hannah Lobel sees signs of the growing presence of the private sector in many places, even in the plot of the movie Armageddon, which, Lobel says, has a “decidedly pro-business macho, anti-egghead science” slant because NASA is forced to turn to a crew of oil riggers to save the world from an asteroid. (It’s a theme I must admit I missed in the movie, perhaps because I considered it little more than a special effects extravaganza with too much Bruce Willis and not enough Liv Tyler.)

In the essay, Lobel describes some of the better-known ventures in development, from Virgin Galactic to SpaceX to Bigelow Aerospace, but warns that “the reliance on a capitalist mentality carries familiar pitfalls”, in particular a concern that increased commercial use of space will lead to greater orbital debris problems. A fair concern, of course, but one given perhaps too much weight: commercial US vehicles seeking launch or other licenses need to have an orbital debris mitigation plan; government vehicles, especially non-US ones and those launched before space junk became an issue, are a much bigger worry.

In a companion essay, “Cosmic Questions”, ethicist Dr. Patrick Lin also raises concerns about the role of private enterprise in space. “If a new age of space exploration marks our opportunity to ‘start over,’ then it seems that we should scrutinize unfettered capitalism, along with competing economic models, through a new lens,” he writes. “A purely free-market economy, for instance—while it is efficient at allocating scarce resources and inspiring innovation—is not so much concerned with need or merit, so a hybrid model may be desirable.”

Lobel writes that the early Space Age “inspired wonder” and “encouraged people to envision new possibilities.” “Those intangibles,” Lobel concludes, “unlikely to fit into a business plan, are at risk if exploration is put at the mercy of pure profit.”

Lin also argues that some degree of what some might call “central planning” is desirable. “We don't want individuals or corporations or governments to make up a plan as they go along, whether it’s to camp on or erect billboards on or lay claim to other planets, untethered by orderly processes and safeguards,” he says, adding that if a similar degree of planning had been applied to the development of the Internet, we would not have the present-day scourges of spam, viruses, and domain-name squatting. True, although without the largely unfettered environment under which the Internet developed and people innovated, we probably wouldn’t have anything like today’s Web or email, systems we take for granted.

Both essays, though, have a flawed premise at their cores: that the rise of private spaceflight means the demise of government spaceflight. Lin speaks of “private space exploration”, which is something of a misnomer: many companies’ plans for space can no more be classified as “exploration” than can a trip to a ski resort (eco-friendly or otherwise). Lobel writes that the early Space Age, while a superpower struggle between the US and USSR, “inspired wonder” and “encouraged people to envision new possibilities.” “Those intangibles,” Lobel concludes, “unlikely to fit into a business plan, are at risk if exploration is put at the mercy of pure profit.”

The problem here is that few people in the space community are seriously talking about abandoning government-funded and -run space programs in favor of entirely private exploration ventures. The magazine presents a false choice: we can either have public space exploration or private space exploration, but not both, nor some combination of the two. And while Lobel is dismissive of the Vision for Space Exploration (saying that President Bush’s announcement of it nearly three years ago “rang hollow”), it is NASA policy, having received strong bipartisan support in Congress to date, and it’s providing opportunities for the private sector to cooperate with—not replace—the space agency.

Another false dichotomy

As you might guess (or worry), some voices featured in the Utne Reader special section are not fond of spaceflight in general. One of them is the magazine’s senior editor, Keith Goetzman, who writes in “Houston, We Have a Problem” that society should be more focused on the Earth than space. “We've degraded our environment so quickly, so blindly, and so greedily that it may be uninhabitable, or at least very inhospitable, within just a few generations,” he claims. There’s no doubt that humanity has had a deleterious effect on the environment, but to claim that humans will render the Earth “uninhabitable” within a few generations borders on hyperbole.

Goetzman has a straightforward solution: “The right thing to do, in fact the only thing to do, is to marshal our resources and try to correct our suicidal course. Our leading scientific and engineering minds should be dedicated to seeking solutions for our earthly problems—not wasting precious time and resources on manned space exploration.” What he doesn’t explain is how the money spent on manned spaceflight—on the order of half of NASA’s $16.7-billion budget—let alone its personnel and other resources, would be used to solve “our earthly problems”.

“Our leading scientific and engineering minds,” writes Goetzman, “should be dedicated to seeking solutions for our earthly problems—not wasting precious time and resources on manned space exploration.”

Goetzman provides another example of a false dichotomy: we can either spend money on human spaceflight and watch our Earth quickly become uninhabitable, or else we can abandon this foolish notion of sending people in space and save the planet instead. No other options are on the table that can both improve the environment and still allow human space exploration (his essay doesn’t explicitly address private human spaceflight, so we don’t know if he’d allow that if government-run programs were prohibited.)

He even rejects the idea that space exploration could help the Earth, through the utilization of new resources of even new places to live: “These are all long-shot propositions akin to hoping to win the lottery,” he writes. And, indeed, he does have a point here: concepts like space solar power or mining asteroids are far in the future, if they ever can be made practical. But is that really reason enough to abandon human spaceflight?

In “Ancient Astronauts and Forgotten Dreams: A requiem for the Space Age”, Mark Dery provides a fascinating, poignant account of growing up in San Diego during the peak of the early Space Age, when aerospace companies in the area were working on Apollo. That time, he notes, has long since passed, and is unlikely to return despite the existence of the Vision for Space Exploration because “much of the nation seems convinced that boldly going where no man has gone before just isn’t worth it.” (This despite a recent Gallup Poll for the Coalition for Space Exploration that found that two-thirds of the public supports the VSE.)

“The Space Age is ancient history,” he writes in what is almost a eulogy for the space program. “Why not admit, then, that its greatest contribution to American culture is the rich fund of symbolism it has given us? The 20th century’s greatest myth, space exploration is the only true new religion since the Bronze Age.”

“The 20th century’s greatest myth, space exploration is the only true new religion since the Bronze Age.”

There is, perhaps, a grain of truth in that assessment: we do tend to revere, even canonize, the early astronauts, in part because they accomplished great deeds early in the Space Age that we have done little to follow up on since then. However, most space advocates would reject the notion of space exploration as a religion (and apparently a dead or dying one, at that). Is that really the best nearly a half-century of spaceflight has to offer society?

Arguments like those in the Utne Reader essays flourish in part because the space community has not, in general, done an effective job communicating the importance of space exploration. (The fact that human spaceflight has been literally going in circles the last few decades doesn’t help, but if we want to break that cycle we have to explain why it’s important to do so.) If space advocates want to build a broader base of support across the political spectrum, one that can weather changes in administrations and Congresses, they need to reach out to various constituencies, erase their existing misperceptions, and discuss how spaceflight—human and robotic, private and public—can benefit them.

Just be sure, when reaching out to progressives, to do it over a cup of fair trade coffee.