On 17th April, the NASA space shuttle Discovery, piggy-backing on a modified Boeing 747, made a low flypast over the National Mall in Washington DC. The world’s media were gathered to record the event. Live footage was broadcast by the global news networks, including one shot where the shuttle is circling the Washington Monument. That shot captured the poignancy of the event, a silent valedictory as the veteran space shuttle headed to its final resting place at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
The shuttle programme ended in 2011. NASA no longer flies manned missions, the return to the Moon and the Mars missions are on hold, and the International Space Station programme is hanging by a thread. After the giant leap, mankind seemed to have moonwalked away from it all.
Until 22nd May, when SpaceX‘s Falcon 9 rocket carried the unmanned Dragon capsule into space, marking the first time a private company has sent a spacecraft to the International Space Station. This was hailed as the dawn of a new golden age of space exploration, with more affordable, more frequent missions.
But is this really space exploration? More importantly, can private enterprise do space science?
Perhaps it would make more sense to ask whether it should. The aim of any company is to generate profit within a foreseeable timeframe. Governments, on the other hand, can fund scientific research for its own sake, with no certainty of economic profit. Industry is then free to pick the fruits of scientific research if it so wishes.
The story of the decline of space science mirrors that of many other fundamental physical sciences. At the heart it of are misguided funding policies, the result of a confusion between scientific research and R&D.
There is a distinction between scientists and engineers, between biologists and bio-science entrepreneurs, between mathematicians and software engineers. Governments often blur this distinction and bow to the pressures of the strongest lobby, that of private enterprise. And real science is squeezed out of the picture.
Scientists are great visionaries. But they are not entrepreneurs. And they make lousy lobbyists.
Left to their own devices, scientists will struggle for funds. They will likely sell themselves out to any bidder, invariably private enterprise, which will then proceed to harness their skills not in science, but in R&D, creating new products for the market.
SpaceX will not carry out any scientific research, because its bottom line is immediate profit. It’s not as if its status has made it more open, either. Much as it tries to present itself as a private entity, it is intimately tied to the U.S. Government, and must “conform to U.S. Government space technology export regulations”. The upshot? It only hires U.S. citizens.
So much for private space.
There is a way out of this. Governments should finance fundamental research. Industrial R&D should be financed by private enterprise.
By all means appoint non-scientists to manage scientists. Some of the greatest advances in science came about in this way. The Manhattan project was headed by a general – Leslie Richard Groves, Jr. – not a scientist. Hubble‘s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, bears the name of a NASA administrator.
But these administrators made sure funding was not frittered away on short-term, high-visibility market product development projects.
By definition, science operates at the boundaries of knowledge, where uncertainty is the order of the day and the usefulness of new results is not measured in jobs created or contributions to GDP.
The Knowledge Economy so often touted by governments means that knowledge is a measure of prosperity in itself, not just through the revenue it generates.
Perhaps some forward-looking companies like SpaceX will come round to this point of view and beat government agencies at their own game by hiring scientists and academics to do science. That will be a giant leap indeed. Until then, a privately-run delivery service in space is all we can hope for. Excellent, but not enough.