“American footprints on distant worlds are not too big a dream.”
These were the words of President Trump in his recent address to Congress and, as far as they go, I am fully in agreement with them. Space exploration remains one of the most thrilling areas of human enterprise, and as Gene Roddenberry noted, it truly is the final frontier. To be dismissive of the dreams of space travel would be an affront to the innately human sense of curiosity that has led us steadily from the dark ages of primitive barbarism to our current world of technological marvels.
And the prospects are good. Just this week, SpaceX, the private spaceflight company helmed by billionaire entrepreneur and whiz-kid Elon Musk, announced plans to send two passengers on a trip around the moon by 2018, which will mark the first time humans have visited our illustrious satellite since the 1970s.
Nevertheless, I suspect the president and I have rather different visions for how that dream should play out in reality.
We know that a big part of Trump’s vision for making America great again involves government spending on roads, bridges, and other infrastructure projects, as well as building up the nation’s military. One can only assume that he regards space flight as merely an extension of military and infrastructural activity, designed to give America a competitive edge over other nations.
While no one is more enthusiastic about space exploration than I am, I would argue that it’s high time we moved away from public financing of these missions, and toward a truly private market.
There are a number of reasons for this. The first is that government space exploration, with the notable exception of the Cold War-driven race to the moon nearly half a century ago, has been glacially slow, inefficient, costly, dangerous, and not especially productive. It is only in the last few years, when companies like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX have emerged, that progress has again been made. Now, readers will rightly point out that these companies are the beneficiaries of huge amounts of public funding, and that much of what they are currently doing would not yet be possible without government support. This is true, and the withdrawal of the government from these projects would likely slow things down a bit at first, but in the long run, we’d all be better off for it.
For one thing, with public funding comes the inevitable inefficiencies and bureaucratic waste, as well as charges of cronyism and picking winners and losers in the market. The technology has progressed, or at least is rapidly progressing, to a point where even major projects can be funded through donations and membership fees.
For example, the Planetary Society, a member-supported organization, has been developing a prototype of a solar sail, a technology that if successful would allow interplanetary travel with minimal need for rocket fuel. The sail is expected to launch on board a SpaceX craft later this year. Furthermore, while names and amounts haven’t been released, SpaceX has confirmed that the moon-bound passengers both paid substantial sums of money for the privilege. The money is out there for these kinds of projects, even if we pull away the crutch of government funding.
There’s also the question of priorities. Some commentators have pointed out that manned space missions represent a huge expense to the public. Given that there is not really a compelling or immediate national interest in putting a man on Mars, for example, it’s reasonable to ask whether this is a good use of resources. When the national debt is almost $20 trillion, there are diseases, crime, poverty, opioid addiction, and terrorism to be fought, should we really prioritize taking joy rides around the solar system?
With private space flight, we don’t need to argue about the best use of resources. Those who oppose space exploration as wasteful won’t have to pay for it, but no one can begrudge private donors, entrepreneurs, space tourists, or anyone else who wants to fund something they think is worthwhile.
As technology continues to improve and costs continue to fall, the rationale for involving government in space exploration becomes less and less compelling. Just as in every other aspect of business, the private sector can, and will, do it better. The future of space belongs not to governments, but to the explorers, pioneers, entrepreneurs, investors, and tourists willing to go there.
This article originally appeared on Conservative Review.