Infinity or Bust

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.’

The buzz started in 2001, when a company called Space Adventures
negotiated a spot for millionaire Dennis Tito aboard a Russian
rocket heading to the International Space Station. The $20 million
vacation caused an uproar at NASA, which blocked Tito from training
at the Johnson Space Center. Greg Klerkx, author of Lost in
Space: The Fall of NASA and the Dream of a New Space Age

(Pantheon, 2004), describes the incident as just one more
protectionist misstep on the part of the agency. Elite NASA types
may have considered Tito a cosmic carpetbagger, but the public
identified with a man who was opening up space to the rest of
us.

Three years later the private space race kicked off when
headlines celebrated the winners of the $10 million X Prize, a
contest created to jump-start commercial space flight. In October
2004, SpaceShipOne, a project bankrolled by Microsoft cofounder
Paul Allen, won for designing the first privately funded spacecraft
to cross the 62-mile threshold into space twice in two weeks.

Virgin Atlantic’s daredevil CEO Richard Branson quickly signed
on SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan to build a fleet that will
ferry customers paying $200,000 a pop to suborbit, where passengers
will experience weightlessness, by the end of the decade.

Elon Musk of PayPal fame is working on sending spacecraft into
orbit through his company Space Exploration Technologies (called
SpaceX). He’s framed his ambitions as a first step toward ensuring
a spacefaring civilization that could survive Earth’s demise.
Another siliconaire, Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos, has built buzz for
his Blue Origin venture-which aims to launch tourists into
suborbital bliss from the company’s West Texas spaceport-mainly by
being secretive about it. Several states are gearing up to cash in
on the new industry by allocating tax dollars to build their own
spaceports. And Budget Suites of America CEO Robert Bigelow is
working on lodging. He successfully launched a one-third-scale
model of his inflatable hotel, Genesis 1, in July. (Ironically, the
project was initiated at NASA, which abandoned it in 2000 and then
sold Bigelow development rights.)

The possibilities to capitalize don’t end there-there’s lunar
and asteroid mining, advertising, solar power collection, and more.
After Las Vegas played host this summer to the first of two
conferences highlighting space’s commercial prospects, a city
newspaper’s editorial page crooned: ‘When flexibility and
innovation are called for, nothing has ever succeeded like the
profit-seeking free market.’

Despite all the dreams the free market seems set to fulfill,
however, the reliance on a capitalist mentality carries familiar
pitfalls. In Space: The Fragile Frontier (American
Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 2006), author and space
technology consultant Mark Williamson warns that our commercial
endeavors are already wreaking environmental havoc. Littered with
human-made space junk, Earth’s orbit could prove dangerous not only
to government endeavors, such as the space shuttle and
International Space Station, but also to commercial satellites.
With more and more entities laying claims to space, Williamson
warns that development and exploration guidelines must be laid down
‘before the ‘final frontier’ becomes a lawless, selfish, and
untamed frontier.’

What’s more, while rocketeers like Branson and Musk promise the
moon, a little skepticism would go a long way toward determining
whether the time has really come to trade the starts and spurts of
science for the swashbuckling mentality of the marketplace.

‘There has been a lot of hype,’ says Roger Launius, chairman of
the Space History Division at the Smithsonian National Air and
Space Museum and former NASA chief historian. Though he tips his
hat to Rutan’s SpaceShipOne (which hangs in his museum), he notes
that NASA was flying similar Mach 3 aircraft at higher speeds more
than 40 years ago. On suborbital flights like those being sold by
Branson, passengers can float weightless for a few minutes and
quickly snap a shot of the curve of Earth before heading for safe
ground. Breaking through to what most of us consider space-the dark
expanse John Glenn reached in 1962-is far more demanding and
risky.

That so much attention has been lavished on an industry whose
accomplishments lag decades behind NASA’s is testament to the savvy
marketing of outfits courting capital and public opinion.
Commercialization has been framed as populism, as the answer to an
innovation-stifling bureaucracy, and several millionaires stand to
profit. These outfits have not had to face the tough scrutiny that
comes with inevitable failure, however, or the soul searching
triggered by the loss of human resources-traumas that have left
NASA averse to risk. The public mourned the astronauts lost in the
Challenger and Columbia accidents as people who died for their
country and for science. How will we regard the deaths of
adventurers risking life and limb for a $200,000 view?

The space program was never a pure pursuit of knowledge, of
course: Apollo was largely a warning shot in the Cold War. But the
impact of the feat managed to transcend politics. It inspired
wonder and, as it evoked the promise of worlds beyond our own,
encouraged people to envision new possibilities. Those intangibles,
unlikely to fit into a business plan, are at risk if exploration is
put at the mercy of pure profit.

UTNE
UTNE
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