Why I am not impressed with SpaceShipOne

Short Answer: It’s only suborbital. It’s just an exotic, jet-powered joyride for rich people.

Long answer: Look, if purely private funding built something like a space elevator, then I’d be impressed, then I’d say NASA, ESA and the RKA need to close up shop. But that’s not gonna happen. Even if Bill Gates and Paul Allen spent all their money, it would equal only a small fraction of the money (Military, engineering and scientific research budgets.) spent by governments around the world on space use. That’s just facts. If you want to explore and colonize a harsh environment, expect enormous government subsidy and a lot of interesting but monetarily profitless scientific research. We will one day colonize space and, the private sector will play noteworthy roles but, it’s certain that the governments of the world will play the biggest part in that process.

Why am I so harsh? Why am I such a killjoy? I was born in the Sixties and grew up as a nerd in the Seventies. This means I read a lot of libertarian-flavored hard science fiction and rants that spun fantasies about the miracles of private funding even as I watched the United States and Soviet Union scale back their ambitions after their military goals had been achieved. The contradiction was so obvious to me as a sorely disappointed teenager as the Eighties dawned. As I prepared to become a physics student in university, it became clear to me exactly how hard space travel really is. I grew increasingly irritated with certain science fiction authors ranting about how the government was screwing things up. Their promises of a bright future created by some privately funded miracle rang hollow to me.

Technology just doesn’t work that way. There’s a lot of hidden, subsidized, profitless scientific research lurking in the past of every technology we buy and sell today. The Libertarians forget that. By the time a piece of technology becomes commercially viable, all the hard work has already been done.

Anyway after reading all the gushing news stories about the privately funded miracle of SpaceShipOne, this rant triggered in me. It may be unwelcome news to worshipers of Ayn Rand and Heinlein, but NASA and JPL ain’t close closing up shop anytime soon.

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