Infinity or Bust

As NASA scientists struggle with an image problem, swashbuckling entrepreneurs are selling space as the ultimate free market. Is it fool's gold?

| November / December 2006

In the 1998 action extravaganza Armageddon, an asteroid the size of Texas is barreling toward Earth and the suits at NASA are scrambling for a fix.

'For 30 years they questioned the need for NASA,' drawls Billy Bob Thornton as the space agency's tough-talking administrator in a situation-room pep talk. 'Today, we're going to give them the answer.'

As those who sat through the blockbuster know-and the movie's $553.7 million worldwide gross suggests there were many of us-the venerable NASA comes up short. The planet's only hope, it turns out, is to plant a nuclear warhead deep within the asteroid, and the only folks who can do that are a crew of oilmen led by a roughneck entrepreneur. Deemed ludicrous eight years ago, certain aspects of the film's plot-which is decidedly pro-business macho, anti-egghead science-don't seem as preposterous today. In a collection of stories in Forbes earlier this year, a new breed of entrepreneurs laying the groundwork for commercial space flight were dubbed 'Space Cowboys.' One of the magazine's commentators suggested that if these guys were in charge of the country's space program, we'd probably be on Mars by now.

It's not a particularly risqu? assessment, given NASA's recent history of expensive and sometimes tragic failures. Some 50 years after Sputnik launched us into the Space Age, the space shuttle evokes little more than a sigh of relief when it returns safely. President Bush's 2004 announcement that he was sending us back to the moon and then to Mars rang hollow-a president facing a quagmire overseas making a desperate play for his Kennedy moment. But is space as a public endeavor so far gone that the only hope of realizing our decades-old dreams is to fling open the gates to a cosmic Wild West?

Space has been open for business for decades, with satellite-dependent industries, such as communications and global positioning systems, pulling in billions. During the Reagan era, even NASA's charter, which initially highlighted the pursuit of knowledge and national prestige, was rewritten to include the mandate to 'seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space.'

The satellite market has since plateaued. Today's space enthusiasts say the new path to profit is tourism that will truly be out of this world. And the media have chimed in with breathless stories about 'the final frontier' which, roughly translated, means 'free market.'

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