Space Exploration Is Following Historical Trends

What a Mars One lander might look like. Image credit Bryan Versteeg.
What a Mars One lander might look like. Image credit Bryan Versteeg.

Do you still sign every petition supporting better funding for NASA or the ESA that you can find in the hopes that somebody will listen eventually? I used to think the same way and I have signed a couple of those petitions lately – not because I think things will improve for government-funded space agencies if I add my signature, but so the U.S. Congress knows that there are still people in America who support funding space exploration. Theoretically, they will be more reluctant to stop those of us who are interested in becoming a multi-planet species if they know that they’re going to get a pushback if they try to stop the tide. And, really, those government agencies are beginning to lose their monopoly on space flight because it’s beginning to follow the trends I halfway expected.

Space exploration is basically following the same pattern that the colonization of America did. Spain’s monarchy was foresighted enough to fund Columbus’ mission even though he was forever certain that he had simply found a new route to India rather than discovering a new continent. There were a few more government-funded expeditions, but then, private companies started to take over. Many of the original British colonies were funded by charter companies that aimed to make a profit for their stockholders. Of course, this was heinously expensive and didn’t make a quick profit, so in many cases, the charter companies let their control over the colonies lapse, with consequences that seem foreseeable today.

Private companies are starting to get into the space business with the same ideas in mind. Most of them are learning the lessons of the past and expect to work with space agencies like NASA at first to help cover the costs. Others are selling seats on suborbital spacecraft that will give a few minutes of weightlessness to people who can pay a few thousand dollars each. Elon Musk has proposed building a Martian colony by selling “shares” to 80,000 colonists for $500,000 apiece. Essentially, the colonists will also be the stockholders. Will the “stockholder” colonists expect to see a profit, assuming it succeeds? Probably not. If you can find 80,000 moderately well-off individuals who are willing to put both money and life on the line for a Martian colony, you’ll be doing well. I will also be very impressed by the people who can not only put up the same money that they could use to buy a good house in a respectable neighborhood, but also go live in the harsh environment of Mars knowing that one wrong move could kill them.

One proposed Mars One flag. Image credit Joseph Sweeney
One proposed Martian flag. You can see more entries for the Aspiring Martians Group design-a-flag contest in this photo album. Image credit Joseph Sweeney.

The Aspiring Martians had a discussion about whose flag we should wear on Mars and some people weren’t too thrilled at the idea of wearing the flag of one nation or another. My suggestion was to simply wear one of the flags designed by the future Martians themselves because it’s likely that any future colonization mission isn’t going to represent any single nation. The colonists are most likely to be an international and multicultural group and some of those nations and cultures have a history of not liking another nation or culture very much. We’ll have to find a way to leave that behind even if it means leaving the flags of our nations off of anything we take to Mars.

Besides, the governments of the world might not be throwing up any insurmountable obstacles at the moment, but neither are they giving us much help. Several individuals who have worked for a government-run space agency or one of its contractors may choose to advise private ventures on their own time, but “individual” means exactly that. They don’t represent their governments. Mars One was a private endeavor that NASA chiefs have indicated that they could learn from, but they haven’t lifted a finger to either fund or provide assistance for creating the Martian outpost.

That’s normal and certainly nothing to be alarmed about. It only means that politicians and bureaucrats might make our lives miserable in other ways, but they can’t turn funding into the same political football it has been for NASA. Private enterprises are beginning to take up the role even though the initial price tag is going to be high enough to cause many shareholders to wince. It’s going to be years before corporations see significant profit if they make any kind of Return On Investment at all, which will likely scare off all but the most foresighted of investors. However, the ones who don’t mind working for decades with the public maybe criticizing them for not doing much of the flashbang it takes to show the kind of progress they understand will see real benefits once they really get the momentum going. It’s like starting an avalanche. The ones who don’t mind kicking a few rocks loose even though they know there’s a risk may be among the ones who actually succeed.

King Canute Makes A Point

Once the process is started, it’s hard to stop due to its building momentum. There is a tale that a king named Canute once wanted to demonstrate that he might be a monarch, but there were certain things that he couldn’t control. So he had his people set up his throne at the edge of the ocean. Then, Canute ordered the tide not to rise up and make his feet wet. Of course, the tide did not obey. He made his point, and the phrase “holding back the tide” may have originated from that story. If governments around the world want to hold back human progress in a similar fashion, they may find that they might be able to slow us down in some cases, but they can’t necessarily stop us. They may also find that the governments that are willing to assist, or at least tolerate, projects like Mars One and Inspiration Mars will get all the glory of having those projects occur within their nations’ borders. So some nations may be willing to let history take its course and follow trends similar to the ones that brought the United States of America to the forefront.

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