Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Can Capitalism Send Us to the Stars?

By Stephen Maurer

When Apollo capsules returning from the Moon hit the atmosphere they radiated more power than the City of Los Angeles.  Think about that. Think how much energy it took to send that tiny capsule into space in the first place.

 Jules Verne wrote stories about firing men into space using cannons.  And that is more or less how all modern societies get there.  The difference, of course, is that our artillery is better thanks to fabulous missile investments in the 1950s.  Presumably mankind would have discovered spaceflight even without the Cold War.  But that moment might have come centuries from now.

Which brings us to the key question: Do we know a cheaper way to do things?  The Obama Administration hopes that a combination of private enterprise and foreign contributions will get NASA back on its old adventurous path. Ever since Apollo, though, Americans have learned that foreign taxpayers are even less willing to invest in space than we are. It’s hard to see why that should change.

That leaves private enterprise, or more precisely the hope that the private sector can find some new and better way to get into space. Look at the ideas, though, and there isn’t much new.  As far as I know, none of the current contenders is proposing a single idea that wasn’t public knowledge in 1945.  “Big dumb rockets” that can be built cheaply because they weren’t originally designed for the military? Air-breathing mother ships to carry rockets above wind resistance?  “Hybrid” solid-liquid rocket engines? They’re all old news.  

Maybe these solutions really will work. Still, there’s an obvious question: If these ideas are so good, why hasn’t someone built them already?  At bottom, the case for privatization depends on believing that NASA has made spectacularly wrong technology decisions -- and held to them for over thirty years.  Maybe this is true, and anyone reading this blog will know the epithets (“sclerotic bureaucracy,” “gold-plating,” “military-industrial complex”) that are needed to tell that story.  All the same, it’s a breathtaking claim.

If I were a betting man, I'd like the other story better. Nature bats last. Maybe humans just don’t know yet how to do the thing affordably.  If so, the private sector won’t do any better than NASA.