So as you know, I really like space. And I am as excited as anyone to think about new developments in space exploration. However, I am in a minority of the international space community when I admit that I’m not at all sanguine about the NewSpace industry.
When I was in Strasbourg last year, this was the hot topic about which everyone was talking: Passenger spaceflight; Asteroid mining; Voyages to Mars. And all of them being done by the private sector alone!
Now, I think that it’s this last point which generates much of the buzz, because of course we’ve been hearing for decades about all of the amazing things that NASA is going to do, only to be disappointed time and time again*; add to that a certain strain of Heinleinian libertarianism built-in to the space community by way of science fiction, and it’s unsurprising that so many people would be so very enthusiastic about the promises of NewSpace.
And then, of course, there’s me. As a physicist, it’s hard for me not get at least a little bit excited by what is supposedly on offer. But I’m not just a physicist: I am also an historian and a bit of a cynic. I am, first of all, skeptical of the underlying assumptions of libertarian ideology; from what I have seen, the private is good at funding commercial research, and very good at capitalizing on fundamental research conducted by government and academia, but when it comes to funding its own fundamental research–such as would presumably be necessary for many of the projects being proposed–the private sector is not what it’s cracked-out to be. Add to that the irrational exuberance, the people who are willing to pay exorbitant sums of money for products which do not technically exist, and the companies whose business plans range from “questionable” to “dodgy,” and the whole thing begins to look like a great, big, economic bubble that’s just waiting to burst.
You could make the argument that it’s good to make the public excited about space one way or the other, and to some extent I suppose that that is true. But if the whole thing turns out to be a bust, how easy will it be to be to excite them again–and not just about private space travel, but about space travel in general? We must tread carefully on this topic.
*That’s not to denigrate their legitimate accomplishments in any way, but let’s face facts: the space shuttle never worked as advertised, a manned voyage to Mars has been promised and promised again over the last three decades, the International Space Station was far behind schedule, and it has been forty years since anyone set foot on the Moon.