This has absolutely nothing to do with videogames, I swear.
I’ve found myself thinking a lot lately about the subject of my last post, the final flight of the space shuttle Discovery. The most obvious reason, of course, is the first successful flight of the SpaceX Dragon, which returned to earth safely after supplying the International Space Station. Sure, there was something a little odd about watching the footage of that splashdown into the ocean, especially for those of us who developed our early space imaginations during the Apollo era. It was a little like seeing a cruise ship suddenly replaced by a caravel. But it was undeniably inspiring. Even more inspiring is listening to the designers at SpaceX, and even more so the company’s founder Elon Musk (for example, check out this interview on NPR’s Science Friday). Clearly, this is a man with no shortage of vision. This isn’t just about launching satellites or supplying space stations in low earth orbit. He’s thinking about stations on the moon. About exploring Mars.
Yet, I find myself troubled by the fact that we’ve essentially turned space exploration wholesale over to private enterprise.
To understand why, think about the reasons behind the situation that I described in my last post. Why is it that we as a collective basically gave up on a commitment to space exploration, to the extent that we even begrudge NASA spending the cost of a Kardashian boob job on anything not connected with Google Maps? As I indicated, there are a lot of spurious answers –“9/11 Changed everything!” Sit the fuck down, Rudy; or the idea that we should solve earthly problems first. There are, however, two more credible answers to this.
The first is that we’re terrified about what we’ll find out there. We probably should be. I just finished Richard Panek’s The 4% Universe, a nicely accessible introduction to the last couple of decades of research in physics, astronomy, and cosmology that has tried to understand the constitution of the universe. The title comes from the fact–at first surprising, then worrying–that absolutely everything we can see (the planets, stars, galaxies, clusters of galaxies; matter, as we commonly understand the term) must make up only 4% of the total mass of the universe. Otherwise the universe, well, how can I put this, wouldn’t exist. So if matter only makes up 4% of the universe, what the hell is the rest of it? Something else. And that’s pretty much where the research is at the moment (there are several plausible candidates for what constitutes this extra padding (real physicists don’t use technical terms like “extra padding,” they prefer fancypants terms like “dark matter” and “dark energy”)).
While reading the book I found myself thinking about things that I hadn’t thought about since I was into astronomy as a kid. Maybe because it is perhaps only as a kid that you can think about some of these things without freaking yourself out. Mostly I found myself thinking about a fundamental fact that Douglas Adams brought to our attention decades ago. Space is big. Really fucking big. And weird. Really fucking weird. As a species we’re not all that keen on big and weird. The weirdness goes way beyond the prospect of creepy non-carbon forms of life just itching to come down and subject us to anal probing. And even way beyond trying to wrap yourself around the idea that space itself is curved, or that things like gravity are not nice little “purchased in the Wal-Mart checkout aisle” add-ons but actual properties of space. Or even beyond questions like: rotation seems to be a fundamental property of most things in the known universe; does the universe itself rotate (what would that even mean?). No, trying to deal with the “missing matter” problem puts you squarely in the realm of quantum physics where you are no longer in the realm of observed certainties but rather theoretical probabilities: suddenly you are talking about particles that are unstable in our universe but may be stable in another one. . .wait, another universe? WTF? You can see why so many people would much rather hunker down in their living room and order in, and tell NASA to go spend its money resurrecting Firefly (hey, that’s actually not a bad use of our tax dollars, come to think of it!). In addition to being scary it is all rather dispiriting. We can’t get our species act together to settle the moon, a mere 240,000 miles away. Even the nearest stars are out of our reach. Those stars are just a small sample of the billions in our own galaxy. Our galaxy is one of billions of galaxies. Now there may be multiple universes. One thing the universe confronts you with pretty harshly is the hard fact of limitations. We love to believe that we as individuals, as Americans especially, as a species (understood by Americans as made up of people who are basically proto-Americans) can do anything. When the universe picks itself up off the floor after laughing uncontrollably for a few millenia it shakes its head and says no, no you really can’t.
The other reason why we’re not that into space exploration is, I suspect, that we’re worried not only about what’s out there but what we’ll do when we get out there. And this is where my concerns about private enterprise space exploration start to crystallize. I caught the last half of Independence Day on TV the other night, and spent some time trying to figure out how that movie got three stars in my channel guide until I remembered that Will Smith is usually good for a bonus star for almost any movie (which means that he is solely responsible for the one star rating for Wild, Wild West). There’s a scene where the captured alien breaks free, kills most of the scientists in the containment chamber, and then ventriloquizes poor Brent Spiner with a tentacle up his sub-basement. As the US president Bill Pullman somewhat unrealistically (and, it has to be said, halfheartedly) tries to talk peace with the alien and find out what it wants. In a voice raspy with sneering villainy the alien announces that what we humans can do to smooth the path of peace and universal understanding between our races is fuck off and die. This scene is necessary to establish that you can’t negotiate with terrorists and to justify the ensuing slaughter of billions of them. The vestigial plot of the movie requires that the aliens be clearly established as being totally unlike us. In fact, after the president is the unwitting victim of ye olde aliene minde melde, we learn that these aliens have made a career of moving from place to place, killing everyone in their path, extracting every last resource before moving on, leaving only despoiled wastelands in their wake.
Wait a minute. That is like us.
That is in fact the problem. Enthusiasts for commercial
exploitation exploration of space (a disturbing number of whom are also boosters for unchecked capitalism) will undoubtedly point to the long and illustrious history of human exploration of our own planet. Much of this was in fact achieved by expeditions funded in whole or in part by corporate entities. Well, yes and no. Corporations like the Dutch East India company and the Massachusetts Bay Company began to play a major role after territories had been discovered (there wasn’t a lot of profit in investing in the settlement of America if you didn’t know where America was, for example). Exploration was funded by national governments, by scientific societies, even on occasion by religious groups.
When corporations got involved, what was the result? Well, human history, basically: a sorry tale of rape, pillage, and enslavement of other human beings (conveniently not recognized as such in order to facilitate their role as commodities)–that’s when they weren’t being massacred wholesale. Oh, and a legacy of environmental despoilation and degradation that we’re still grappling with. Is this because the world was being explored by corporations? Or because it was being explored by homo sapiens? Perhaps it is a chicken and egg argument. I would suggest, however, that contrary to the beliefs of those wackos who want us to accept idiocies such as that corporations are people (and now, according to the US Congress, apparently they are people that will just be devastated if they have to pay women the same as men) corporations are not the highest expression of humankind: they bring out the worst in us, reliably, time after time.
This, of course, is the stuff of our science-fiction nightmares. Think about the number of films about the future that are littered with corporate malfeasance. One thing that is kind of odd about a lot of science-fiction, if you think about it, is that if it is set in the future and in distant star systems there is very often this enormous historical gap concerning how we got to the stars in the first place. In example after example, it just kind of happened. If reference is made that period at all, however, it is often in extremely generic fashion: mankind reached for the stars, humanity colonized the galaxy. But that generic vagueness is revealing. Our initial push for the stars was (is) assumed to be a massive collective effort, undertaken out of a kind of excess of curiosity and imagination (a tragic misreading of our species, as I’ve argued above, but let that go). It was not sponsored by Apple or Lockheed. That comes later. What happens next is pretty obvious. In our tortured sci-fi imaginings, the galaxy-sized corporations of the future are even more self-evidently too big to fail. They are not, however, too big to fuck up. Or to fuck you up.
So my concern is that with the triumph of the Space X Dragon, as uplifting as it certainly is, that we are heading off down a highly dubious road. Moreover, we’re pulling onto this particular onramp not because we think that this is necessarily the best way to do space exploration but simply because the other option–exploration sponsored by large national entities–is a) facing funding challenges due to the extraordinary amounts of money we’re spending to blow each other up and make shit like John Carter, and b) because such endeavors represent big government and are therefore anathema to the neo-cons and their neo-lib lackies that constitute most of the legislative personnel in space-capable Western democracies (or, gangs of pocket-lining thugs if we’re talking about China and Russia).
It is also far from clear that this is the best way to go about space exploration. Does free enterprise have a role to play in commercial satellite launches and space station re-supply? Yes, because those are known quantities (albeit still highly complex undertakings with often doubtful outcomes). But exploration is something different. As Musk himself indicated in the NPR interview, there is a lot of new technology that needs to be developed and a lot of things that need to be coordinated to make something like a mission to Mars possible. For better or worse, governments have historically played a role in spurring large-scale innovation and coordinating multi-layered resource-intensive projects (I’m waiting for the day that a US windbag going on about “big government” offers to forswear their Internet usage). Moreover, while they have never been disinterested in their involvement, their interest has often been less on the bottom line. Corporations on the other hand don’t play well with others; they buy out others. It is also hard to see corporations collaborating on speculative technology ventures, on the scale necessary for space exploration, especially with no guaranteed return.
There seems to be this fantasy out there that things like space exploration (or health care, or anything, really) can be done more efficiently if we hand them over the private sector. Private sector will deploy its interest in the bottom line to get things done with a minimum of waste. Corporations, however, simply hide their waste more effectively because they are not under public scrutiny, with the result that when it comes to light it can be devastating (cough MF Global cough, cough cough Morgan Chase cough cough. . .I could go on but I’m going to hack up a lung).
The more important point is that there are some human activities that we should except are inherently wasteful, and worthily so. When the outcome is uncertain or even unknown, as it has been with most human exploratory endeavours throughout the ages, in retrospect the process will always appear to be messy and, to the corporate brain, inefficient. Space exploration is one of those areas where we shouldn’t let the corporate brain do our thinking for us.