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The Private Sector in Space
by Robert J. Sawyer
An op-ed piece for Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper,
Thursday, June 26, 2004
Copyright © 2004 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.
Most TV viewers remember Andy Griffith as Sheriff Taylor of
Mayberry, or as Ben Matlock, the wily defence attorney. Me, I
remember him as Harry Broderick, the main character of the 1979
ABC science-fiction series Salvage 1.
Like Star Trek, another of my favourites, this show
had narration over the opening credits: "Once upon a time, a
junkman had a dream. `I'm gonna build a spaceship, go to the
moon, salvage all the junk that's up there, bring it back, and
As is so common with science fiction, the premise of
Salvage 1 has now become science fact. The private sector
has begun sending humans into space for motives of pure profit.
And I, for one, think that's great.
Last Monday, June 21, 2004, a vehicle bearing the wonderfully
appropriate name SpaceShip One became the first-ever
private space vessel, travelling 100 km above the Earth. At the
helm was Mike Melvill, who, at the age of 63, is now the first
private pilot to earn astronaut's wings from the U.S. Federal
Melvill plans to go up again soon. He's part of a team
funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen that's looking to snare
the Ansari X Prize: US$10-million that will go to the first
private-sector concern to launch a reusable vehicle containing
three people into space twice in a two-week period. The prize is
the brainchild of physician Peter Diamandis, who came up with the
idea after reading about how the US$25,000 Orteig Prize had
inspired Charles Lindbergh to undertake the world's first solo
transatlantic flight in 1927. Since the dawn of powered flight,
making money has been a great motivator.
There are 23 other groups vying for the X Prize, including
two in Canada: the Canuck spaceships are the Arrow (who
says you never get second chances?) and the Wild Fire.
Everybody involved in these projects is convinced that great
benefits will come from the private sector being involved in
manned space flight.
And why shouldn't it be? The public sector
particularly NASA has certainly botched it. The
International Space Station had cost overruns that would make
even a military contractor blush. And after the Columbia
tragedy of February 2003 like the earlier
Challenger disaster, largely attributable to
administrative incompetence what's left of the U.S. space
shuttle fleet has been grounded.
We've had 43 years of space travel based on a recipe of
bureaucracy and big spending, and, astonishingly, in all that
time, the cost of putting a person in space has remained
constant. That's because there's been no competition to drive
the price down. But the government monopoly on manned space
flight is coming to an end as we try a new set of ingredients:
guts and imagination, entrepreneurship and innovation.
And fun let's not forget fun! Indeed, that was
always one of NASA's problems. As science-fiction legend Robert
A. Heinlein famously observed, only a government bureaucracy
could succeed in making the grand adventure of going into space
Fortunately, despite Mission Control's snooze-inducing
efforts, a large segment of the public is still captivated by the
dream of travelling in space. And, indeed, the era of space
tourism has already begun: in 2001, Dennis Tito become the first
person to buy a vacation above Earth, heading up on a Russian
cargo rocket to the International Space Station.
What's the appeal? Well, besides the thrill of the ride and
the breathtaking views of our own planet, journeys to space also
allow you to experience weightlessness. In zero gravity,
everyone's an acrobat.
The market is huge. Surveys shows that 69% of males and 57%
of females want to take a trip into space and 70% of those
would be willing to pay several months' salary to do so. Patrick
Collins of Space Future Consulting predicts that by 2030, the
private sector will be putting five million tourists a year into
space, visiting dozens of orbiting hotels and sports complexes.
The Hilton chain is already seriously working on plans for its
first orbital resort.
Of course, tourism is only one part of what businesses hope
to accomplish in space. Alloys made there are exceptionally
strong because they lack the defects caused when gravity swirls
the molten metal. Impurity-free pharmaceuticals can be produced
in microgravity by mixing the constituent chemicals in midair,
without ever touching containers that might contaminate them.
And some superconducting crystals can only be grown in
All of those things that can be done in what the
space-business community calls LEO Low Earth Orbit. But,
just like Andy Griffith's character on Salvage 1, today's
businesses also have their sights set on the moon. For instance,
the Artemis Project is a private venture bent on establishing a
permanent, self-supporting lunar community. Among the possible
uses: the ultimate retirement home. After all, you don't have
to worry about breaking your hip when you fall in slow motion and
only weigh one-sixth of what you did on Earth.
Now, yes, there will always be a role for government-funded
manned space flight. Basic exploration should be done for
reasons other than making a buck. And I do believe governments
should be working hard to establish permanent settlements
off-Earth so that humanity will survive even the worst terrorist
or environmental disaster.
But in other areas, the government should butt out, and let
the capitalists take their shot. Dan Goldin, the former
Administrator of NASA, had a mantra: "Better, faster, cheaper."
Of course, he was never able to make that work in the bloated
bureaucracy he headed. But those same goals are routinely
achieved by businesses. Where governments fail on Earth
or out among the stars the private sector will succeed.
Andy Griffith's Harry Broderick character had a dream. So
do I. I dream of going to space. No government is going to make
that happen for regular guys like me. But private business will
because there are customers willing to pay for it. The
bottom line is still the bottom line, even out on the final
[2004 bionote] Robert J. Sawyer's
is the most-recent winner of the
for Best Novel of the Year, the world's top prize
for science-fiction writing.
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