Why We Fail At Space Exploration

As it stands, our entire species’ dreams of walking on distant worlds or harvesting interstellar resources rest on the shoulders of a mere few, government funded, sources – NASA and ESA primarily. While we all have dreams and visions of how society and governments should act, in order to make the great transition into a space-faring society we must face the harsh realities of modern civilization. Read on for more information.

Vitruvian Man On The Moon

As our technological prowess is rapidly growing, especially in the fields of astronomy and physics, we’ve reached the point where economics dictates whether or not we can confirm even existing theories, let alone build the instrumentation devise new ones. Though it’s just a minuscule example, here is a list of almost 20 space probes & missions canceled in just the last decades.

The quantity of valid and often thrilling scientific and technological experiments lost to the ruthless cutting block of budgetary limitation is staggering. The following video showcases a space probe (called JIMO) that would have scanned Jupiter’s moons for life, but was canceled after extensive development had taken place.

JIMO - Video On The Cancelled Jupiter Probe

Clearly, just having a technological or scientific concept is no guarantee we will utilize it – especially when there’s a high pricetag.

This economic sway, which I call Financial Selection, is easily one of the most influential forces on the developmental pathway of modern Human society.

Simply put, Financial Selection is an economics-based evolutionary force, where the products and technologies most likely to generate revenue will survive and flourish, and those with dubious returns will often stagnate or die off.

While (years ago) labs created wireless electricity, computer screens that weave into clothing, and even mind controlled computing, you would be hard-pressed to find these inventions in the hands of any but the wealthiest and the most tech savvy. Why? Financial selection and planned obsolescence both dictate that much higher revenue can be achieved through the piecemeal distribution of technology than by wholly adapting next-generation breakthroughs.

Take a look at Apple’s business model. While they could very well have just upgraded from the original iPod into a versatile, touch screen video player, the intensity of their current fad allowed them to release (and profit from) several successive generations of minuscule upgrades. Their company has set such a rapid rate of planned obsolescence, that their entire corporate strategy focuses on getting you to constantly upgrade to newer generations of technology.

Not everyone is oblivious to these games. Watch my friends and I smash an iPod at an Apple store in Toronto. The video (and following series of films) were viewed over 20 million times internationally, and provoked thought and debate about the Apple culture worldwide.

Watch An iPod Get Smashed

Almost every product produced in our modern society is specifically designed to break after a certain amount of years, or be rendered useless as ‘old-technology’, but Apple takes things a step further. You cannot have the battery replaced in your Apple products. Seriously. Units with fully functional, advanced electronics are discarded due to the failure of the battery – one of the cheapest components.

In Apple’s words: “If your iPod requires service only because the battery’s ability to hold an electrical charge has diminished, Apple will replace your iPod for a service fee” (emphasis added)

Our culture’s expectation to constantly move forward and adapt to new products actually sets us up in a position where market demands could force forward the rate of technological development, but, sadly, greed can give greater rewards when you take many short steps instead a few large ones. All we get out of this planned obsolescence is a shinier version of what we already own and another generation of gadgets to poison our landfills.

Tech Obsolescence Clogs Landfills

While obsolescence won’t provide us with what we need to truly move forwards, this innate cultural greed can still be harnessed to achieve great things – especially in instances where development can lead to revenue. As you may or may not know, the first solo trans-atlantic flight was conducted to win a $25,000 cash prize.

This concept of prize-driven-development was given a recent revival by the X-Prize Foundation. While many of their recent competitions are generating a lukewarm media reaction, you will very likely recall the Ansari X-Prize, where Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne became the first reusable, manned, spacecraft to reach the edge of space without government assistance. While the X Prize Foundation paid out US$10 million to the winner, over $100 million was invested in new technologies in pursuit of the prize. While only one contestant took home the prize money, several other organizations are still plowing ahead with space-based research and development even years later.

SpaceShipOne In Flight

Another stunning example showcasing the power of financial selection is the DARPA Grand Challenges. Faced with the prospects of immediate financial returns and a very real potential for future government contracts, several organizations feverishly worked to develop fully autonomous vehicles. It worked. Maybe not the first year (none of the robot vehicles finished the route), but the second year fared much better (five vehicles successfully finished, and almost all beat the furthest distance in year 1).

Two years later the self-driving cars had already learned how to navigate urban landscapes, obeying road rules and (largely) avoiding technological hiccups.

Click the following link for a documentary on the DARPA Grand Challenge and the Urban Challenge.

DARPA Grand Challenge - The Great Robot Race, Full Documentary

With these examples in mind, it should be plain to see that many of our technological hurdles can be beaten – we just need to throw enough money at them (and have a way to pull plenty more money out).

So, how do we make money from going to space?

Well, it just so happens that the majority of the resources we fight over on Earth can be obtained, in practically limitless quantities, from space.

We aren’t talking about some speculative investing either – a small, metallic asteroid can be worth over twenty trillion dollars. A kilometer diameter asteroid could contain literally enough iron-ore to supply the entire planet for over two years. Not surprisingly, asteroids aren’t all that hard to find in our solar system – there are between 500 and 1,000 near-Earth asteroids larger than one kilometer in diameter.

Asteroid Mining Facility (Image Via NASA)

If you feel like going for a bit further of a stroll, the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter contains over 700,000 to 1.7 million asteroids with a diameter of 1 km or more.

I’ll let you work out the dollar figures on those paycheques but, regardless of specifics, even harvesting out of our local region of space would likely make you the richest human in history.

Needless to say, if any bold corporation or entity decided to brave the potential hazards (and develop the necessary hardware) to operate offworld mining operations, the impact it would have on our species would be staggering.

So, if the rewards are so great, why aren’t corporations going into space?

They are. Sorta.

Our planet is orbited by literally hundreds of commercial satellites (active and otherwise), performing dozens of different tasks. From television broadcasting to resource prospecting, the companies of the world are playing a major role in the use of Earth’s geosynchronous orbit.

Complete Survey Of Debris And Satellites Around Earth

Private firms have even gained satellite launch capabilities of their own in recent years, with the company SpaceX generally leading the way. On top of satellite launches, the corporation is actively developing the world’s largest heavy lift rocket and a manned capsule to transport crews to the space station and beyond.

While the occasional group makes the bold claim of building an orbital space hotel, or setting up a moon base, very few companies seriously consider setting foot out of Earth’s orbit. Realistically, this is a very reasonable stance at the current level of technological development in space exploration.

It can be very risky for a corporation to spend large sums of money on research & development, especially when pioneering a new technology or when revenue may only come after years of expenditures. This is why large corporations often seek government contracts – it gives them access to a larger pool of financial resources and allows them the ability to take greater risks than their own revenue would allow.

Plenty of examples can be seen in the aviation industry, which is heavily dependent on government financing for innovation. The V-22 Osprey, a helicopter that can tilt its rotors and become a plane, was widely seen as technological impossibility before billions of dollars of government financing floated the bulk of its development.

Click the following image for a documentary on the V-22 Osprey’s development and deployment.

V-22 Osprey Transition Between Helicopter and Plane

Now that the technology has been proven in the battlefields of the Middle East, the other potential uses of a plane requiring no runway are being realized and there are few doubts the investment will pay off.

Bell-Boeing has had so much success in recent years that development is underway for a large, quad-nacelled, civilian vehicle to reduce airport congestion.

Like the with the V-22, any serious commercial endeavor in space will require extensive R&D and prolonged testing periods. Naturally, this can be a frightening prospect to established businesses, let alone start-ups seeking capital.

Fortunately, NASA’s past experience is for hire, especially with recent staffing cuts placing highly skilled laborers back into the job market. Even the ongoing internal operations at the world’s space agencies can help raise investor confidence and pave the way for space corporatism.

The successful completion of several robotic missions to asteroids in recent years (and NASA’s current goal of a manned asteroid landing), may help push Humanity’s technological prowess and experience to the point where companies feel safer entering the field. Naturally, any progress the government can generate with tax dollars can become that much less of an expenditure for a private venture.

NASA's Columbia Supercomputer

While NASA may have taken big risks laying the first footprints on the Moon, corporations are much more comfortable walking in those existing footsteps than breaking new soil.

Of course, there are issues with relying on scientific agencies to take the first steps. Primarily – their concern is science, not sustainability.

While we can cheer on the capabilities of ESA and NASA for conducting research and expanding our knowledge, they were never designed to push us into a space-based species. These agencies operate on shoe-string budgets, desperately trying to squeeze out as much scientific gain from their funding as possible. Projects are ranked based on scientific merit to dollar spent, and priorities are balanced with each annual budgetary release.

Sure, the science we get is cost effective, but what is lost when our focus is purely on the acquisition of knowledge?

Mainly, sustainability.

These agencies are cash-sinks. Nobody expects a financial return on investment for NASA – their funding is based off of the hope that acquired knowledge will translate into strategically beneficial advances, or help to build a stronger national image. Government science institutions live year to year, with their operations and futures precariously resting on the support of the people and a steady stream of tax dollars.

Why don’t we already have bases on the moon, or manned missions to Mars? The better question is, why would we? The cost of developing lunar infrastructure is huge, and the previously approved (and later scrapped) missions called for massive financial losses without establishing a clear vision for returning on the investment. The government doesn’t want to cut spending elsewhere to benefit astronomy, you don’t want higher taxes, so where would this money come from? Sure, we’ll achieve our celestial goals eventually, but technologically speaking we probably could have pulled off both decades ago. And even when our governments reach these destinations, who is to say we won’t just cancel the massive budget after a few years like we did after the first lunar landings?

You just can’t rely on science institutions to think and operate like a business, their goal is (and should remain) the acquisition of knowledge and not the acquisition of cash. Don’t get me wrong, we should never disband NASA’s space divisions, nor should we cripple their operations with budget constraints.

When Grant Proposals Fail

On the flip side, a complete reliance on corporations to both prioritize our understanding of the universe and generate revenue will never work either.

It is their legal obligation to shareholders to maximize earnings, and there is no foreseeable way that deep space observations would even be able to break even. How could a space corporation even attempt to sway the votes of investors towards science if the options were between a Helium-3 mine on the moon (future value estimated at $100/party balloon) or a comparatively expensive telescope?

So, how do we succeed at exploring space?

Obviously, the only way we will ever become a space-faring species is by taking advantage of the natural strengths of both the private and public sectors. By setting up the conditions and opportunities to nurture the emerging commercial space industry, we may soon find ourselves (or our machines) permanently inhabiting the reaches of our solar system. Thankfully this is a vision that President Obama strongly supports.

As much as we’ve dragged our feet in past decades when it comes to space travel, it would seem that our immediate future is shining much brighter. For the first time in space history, our insatiable craving for wealth may actually be lining up with our innate scientific curiosity.

Commercial Space Port, Actively Under Construction

We just need to ensure our governments provide fertile grounds for the seeds of the commercial space industry to grow.

Using the historic groundwork and research capabilities of our government funded science institutions we can easily solve the How of getting into/surveying space. If we exploit the force of financial selection and power of corporate greed, we can finally answer the question of Why we should take to the skies.

With a mind for business and a heart for the sciences, financial selection could turn our wildest dreams into a practical, achievable, reality. Needless to say, we are on the verge of the Corporate Space Revolution. I’m excited, and you should be too.

Written by: Ben Lovatt

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