This article really has to be read to be believed. If one were to take it at face value, one would imagine that libertarian advocates of private space travel had some sort of secret plot up their sleeve to subvert the Western way of life.
There is a respectable tradition of scientific innovations being stimulated by cash prizes. French industry offered the rewards that prompted Jean-Baptiste Guimet to synthesize artificial ultramarine in 1828 and Louis Pasteur to find a way of making racemic acid in 1853. More recently, the $1-million prizes offered in 2000 by the Clay Mathematics Institute in the United States for solving seven key maths problems have been a tempting stimulus to new discoveries.
But the Ansari X prize is driven neither by the needs of industry nor by the enthusiasms of philanthropists. It has a political philosophy, which is supported by a little rewriting of history.
"We believe", the X prize creed states, "that spaceflight should be open to all - not just an elite cadre of government employees or the ultra-rich." Aviation was once just the way rich people travelled it argues; commercial forces have now brought it within reach of everyone.
Let's leave aside the fact that "everyone" here means everyone in a developed nation. It's the "elite cadre" that bothers me. This is the language of the libertarian right, which maintains that governments are always trying to obstruct our fundamental freedoms. Indeed, the X prize mission states: "Space provides freedom". (emphasis added)
Ooh, those libertarians can't be trusted! Why, how could anybody come to think that governments are ever anything but devotees of personal freedom? But wait, there's more!
The image promoted by the X prize Foundation is that of selfish governments who developed space technology only to keep it for themselves, depriving the ordinary citizen of the chance to leave the planet.Now how's that for a stunning leap of illogic? How this gentleman managed to get from the claim that governments are obstructing private space initiatives to the conclusion that libertarians claim there was some sort of public-private race in the beginning is beyond me. Perhaps more subtle minds than my own will be able to crack this tough nut. Note the clever little dig at commercialization, by the way? Someone must have felt very clever having found the ® key.
Private industry, in contrast, will supposedly bring power to the people. What the foundation calls the New Race to Space® (you can never start commercialization too soon) "is more exciting than the US-Soviet space race of the 60's, because this time we'll get to go".
But depicting the original space race as some kind of competition between public and private enterprise that the US government quickly monopolized is completely false, not to say bizarre. It was, of course, all about demonstrating technological (and by implication, military and ideological) supremacy. As with the nuclear weapons programme, the immense sums of money involved were only liberated because of the military interests.
But wait, don't we cross the Atlantic today by jet aircraft? Where did they come from? The first jet plane, the German Heinkel He 178, powered by Hans von Ohain's engine, made its maiden flight in 1939, ten days before the beginning of the Second World War. By then, the British government had reconsidered its initial doubts about Frank Whittle's own design for jet propulsion, and the Pioneer prototype jet made its debut in 1941, funded by the British Air Ministry.Yet more wierdness. How does it follow from the fact that military funding played a large part in improvements in aviation that there isn't a fundamental antagonism to private space initiatives on the parts of the powers that be? Illogicality is piled upon illogicality like Pelion upon Ossa. Worse yet, his reference to current transatlantic air travel works to undermine his argument, as last I heard, Boeing and Aerobus were both private firms (though some European governments still own minority shares in the latter). Say what you will about the military-industrial complex, but compared to the field of manned space travel, it looks like a veritable haven of free enterprise.
Once again, military necessity, not commercial entrepreneurship, was the force that made technological innovation viable.
There is no point in being coy about the role of military incentives in the advancement of science and technology. After all, it has a history far older than that of aviation and space science. But this does not suit the narrative the X prize needs, and so the foundation has transformed the story into one of private (yet populist) enterprise battling public (yet elitist) prevarication.
As an example of where this reasoning leads, aerospace engineer Rand Simberg suggests in The New Atlantis that the commercial space age would be further accelerated if the United States were to withdraw from the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, because it "bans declarations of national sovereignty off-planet, and makes the defense of private property rights in space problematic".Now we get to the real reason for this fellow's disgruntlement: he can't stand the thought that space will be tainted by grubby commerce: notice the oh-so-clever copyright symbol next to the word "Moon?" It's bad enough that those filthy capitalists should be getting their way down on planet Earth, but do they have to have it their way up in the heavens too?
How otherwise can McDonalds colonize the Moon (or should that be the Moon®)? Simberg neglects to mention that the treaty also outlaws the militarization of space. But no one would do a thing like that, would they?
I can't restrain myself from pointing out one last bit of unreason in this sad excuse for an argument, namely the idea that Mr. Simberg "neglects" (i.e, intentionally chooses not) to mention that the militarization of space is also forbidden by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Leaving aside the question of whether or not such a restriction is desirable, were one to choose to reject Treaty X because of clause A, how does it follow that one's failure to mention clause B as a reason is a sign that one's real objection is to the very clause one didn't mention? Couldn't it just be the case that one failed to mention B because one wasn't concerned with it? It would be one thing if Mr. Simberg were a known advocate for the militarization of space, but nowhere in the article is any hint of such a public agenda given, nor am I aware of any such thing from what little I knew about him beforehand.
This article tells us absolutely nothing about the supposedly nefarious aims of libertarian advocates of private spaceflight, but it does tell us a great deal about the anti-capitalist resentments of its author.