Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Private Galactic Spaceport That Isn't

Ground has been broken on the construction site of Spaceport America, the world's first purpose-built commercial spaceport.

Those behind the project say that it will help provide a new chapter in space exploration. When finished in 18 months' time, the facility will house Virgin Galactic's space tourism business and other firms working in the commercial space arena.

It will cost the New Mexico government almost $200m (£121m). Steve Landeene, executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, said: "The future is here and we are not too far off a new age of space. "It is not just about private astronauts going up…"

To impress upon those gathered at the site just how within reach the commercial space-age now is, the star attraction of the ground-breaking event was to have been a fly-by of Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo aircraft. But much to the disappointment of the crowd, at last minute it was forced to turn back with technical difficulties….

If all goes to plan, the inaugural flight should carry Sir Richard Branson, his family and spaceship designer Burt Rutan on a sub-orbital ride within two years. They will be followed by a waiting list of 300 who have all ignored the current economic climate and are willing to pay about $200,000 for the privilege of experiencing six minutes of weightlessness during the two-hour flight.

Space programs funded by hundreds of millions of dollars of public investment are not "private" in any sense. And sub-orbital flights are not "space flight" (let alone "Galactic") in any sense, either.

The future is now! Time for the free marketers to Go Galt in that great Galt's Gulch at L5, or in the Asteroid Belt, or possibly in the Oort Cloud! Yay, stupidity! Yay, stealing!


Anonymous said...

Alan Shepherd was the first American in space with his sub-orbital flight in 1961. Eight years later, men were on the moon. Not saying that's going to happen here, but first steps are always small.

Dale Carrico said...

Lucy. Football.

Giulio Prisco said...

Space programs funded by hundreds of millions of dollars of public investment are not "private" in any sense

Not so, since public investment is often explicitely meant to stimulate technologies that can be transferred to the private sector for commercial development.

Dale Carrico said...

Here in the US, Giulio, there is a never ending ruinous reiteration of the absolutely false rhetoric that the government and the market are antithetical forces, that the market is a spontaneous order always only constrained by oppressive government intervention, when in fact what passes for the market is articulated by laws and protocols the functioning of which depends on legitimate governance and what passes for commerce is enabled by layers of physical infrastructure the maintenance of which depends on ongoing public investment in the service of public good rather than parochial profit-making. My point wasn't to deny the obvious fact that public investment is endlessly diverted into private enterprises -- I mean, are you kidding me? -- but to resist the tendency of private enterprise in the aftermath of these endless infusions of public investment to pretend to anti-governmental autonomy, which is a "free market" conceit that has done literally untold mischief here in my country.

Giulio Prisco said...

Here in Europe most political parties don't consider the government and the market as antithetical forces, but talk of difefrent variants of "public-private partnership" (they used to say PPP in Brussels a few years ago).

I know that in the US some radical libertarians say that what the private sector does is always good and what the public sector does is always bad. This is, of course, an extreme view difficult to defend rationally. But, are you sure that you don't fall in the opposite extreme at times?

Dale Carrico said...

No, I don't fall into the opposite extreme, though this sort of accusation is a commonplace among right-wing tools confronted with anybody to the left of Newt Gingrich (I'm not calling you a right-wing tool, I'm saying: don't be one or fall for their crap). As for all the rest, yes, I obviously know all that, and if you know it as well it is difficult to understand what motivated your initial comment.

Anonymous said...

Well it depends on one's definition of "space flight," some purists still(*) claim that only orbital flights qualify, but I personally think that "being in outer space, as defined by FAI, for any length of time" is acceptable. Although it's indeed equivlent to "having been in London," because your plane/train/whatever made a stop there while you were en route to someplace else. Technically it is true, but practically it's irrelevant.

As for funding, - it's all more complicated than firebrands on both sides usually claim, - NASA and Big Aerospace did an abysmally poor job for the last 25 or so years, but you need more than "a shed and enterpreneural spirit" to do anything worthwhile in space. Heck, most of those enterpreneurs FAILED MISERABLY, despite having decent budgets. And all three of them who didn't and actually launched something (Orbital, Scaled, and SpaceX) took hundreds of millions of Uncle Sam's money and a lot of good advice and technology from NASA, USAF, and Big Aerospce in one form or another. (Rutan probably less than other two, but let's face it, - Burt Rutan is a living fossil of Chiefdesignerus Omnipotentus subspecies Rockstarus who all died out in 60's. Mere human beings simply don't have required publicity and expertise to pull his stunts off.) And Rutan's current approach simply doesn't scale to orbital flight, let alone Moon flight. It doesn't mean he can't do it, but I would be very surprised if SS3 would be much different (or better) than current orbital craft.

(*) It used to be a major propaganda issue during Space Race heydays, - Soviets IIRC refused to acknowledge Shepherd's flight as "real spaceflight" on these grounds.

Dale Carrico said...

Who knew I was an intergalactic sojourner my last flight to Paris? How very exciting. It's true, it did feel like an altogether different, even techno-utopian, world in Paris compared to the US of Freedom Fries and Darwin-Denialism...