Opening up the New Frontier: Government Work?

By | September 26, 2013

Neil deGrasse Tyson thinks so. He doesn’t believe that Elon Musk’s plan to send people to Mars is going to fly. I’ll just let him lay out his argument in his own words:

The Columbus analogy is fairly persuasive, but it ultimately it rests on the assumption that things in the future are more or less bound to work the way they have in the past. Long-time readers will know that I am not overly attached to that particular assumption.  For example, I think that it’s likely to get us in a lot of trouble where automation replacing jobs is concerned. In the past, whenever technology eliminated jobs, it created more jobs in the process. But that might not go on forever, and our assumption that it will is a very risky one, especially with the work force shrinking ever smaller. Likewise, the fact that governments have traditionally sponsored the earliest missions that open up new frontiers doesn’t mean that it always has to work that way.

In any case, there is an argument to be made that the government has already done its job in opening up the frontier of space. They have demonstrated that we can send human beings into space and to land on other worlds (Apollo.) They have demonstrated that people can live and work in space long-term (Mir and ISS). And they have done yeoman’s work in exploring, mapping, and generally getting to know the very planet that Elon Musk wants to go to: Mars.

Tyson talks about how the first mission is always carried out by the government. But here’s the thing: Mars is not virgin territory. We’ve been going there since the 1960′s, landing there since the 1970′s. We just haven’t been going in person. Ferdinand and Isabella didn’t have the option of sending unmanned probes out to prove that you can reach Asia by sailing west. Give them that option, and assuming that a hypothetical Renaissance-era unmanned probe would have cost less than three ships plus crew plus supplies, that’s exactly how they would have done it.

Also, Tyson makes no mention of Planetary Resources, the company that plans to start mining near-Earth asteroids for profit in the near future. What are the risks? Who are the investors? What’s the ROI? These aren’t just rhetorical questions. People are seriously working out the answers to them as we speak.

Via technology, capabilities that once belonged only to large nation states and mega-corporations are being passed into the hands of ever-smaller entities and individuals. Increasingly we may find that small private initiatives are not only a workable way to get humanity into space; they may well be the best way to do it.

  • jhertzli

    If “governments are for gravity wells,” then it makes sense for Mars to be settled by a government. Asteroids, on the other hand…

    • Montjoie

      If only we could get the government into a gravity well.

  • Camaxtli

    I don’t like how this is set up as an either government or SpaceX scenario. A likely scenario is that governments, and not just the U.S., pay SpaceX to fly Mars missions when SpaceX develops the vehicles to do so. The genius of SpaceX is that all its construction and testing is done in house much more efficiently than in the past by giant aerospace and the government pays a flat rate and not cost plus. It is also a private firm, not public and thus not subject to investors with little understanding of the industry and who are focused on short term, quarter to quarter gains and squeezing out every last ounce of profit without looking at the big picture.

    So sure government funding will be involved in early Mars missions, but the missions will be carried out by private enterprise in a cost efficient manner.

    That aside, I agree with Phil that the history of spaceflight does not necessarily predict its future and analogies like Columbus are only analogies and cannot be lazily relied upon without analyzing specific circumstances.

  • David Govett

    Is there no other astronomer? Every damn time there’s an astronomy story, they turn to this same guy. This makes it seem like everyone else in the field is a nitwit.

  • Howard Roark

    Shocking that an “expert” living off government funding thinks government should do something.

  • fearsometycoon

    Columbus is a terrible analogy. Ferdinand & Isabella financed his voyage expecting financial returns. Of course, being a government, they were expecting him to procure financial returns by employing violence. Which he did. Successfully.

    • DocScience

      The Spaniards looted the Inca and Mayan world. They got a huge reward.

      And that money for nothing destroyed the Spanish character and will.

      • Inane Rambler

        This actually hurts Tyson’s point even more. Cortez and Pizzaro generally acted independent of the government’s control, although the government was more than fine with taking over what those men conquered pretty much using their own funds.

  • MoReport

    When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is
    possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is
    impossible, he is very probably wrong.

    Arthur C. Clarke’s 1st Law

    In the case of government sponsored scientists substitute ‘certainly lying’ at the end.

  • deadcenter

    first, the vikings that landed in greenland, in canada, in northern new england were not government funded.

    second, the wright brothers were not government funded. most of the early aircraft research and development wasn’t government funded.

    i remember reading something from one of the early space pioneers, but can’t recall who it was. His opinion was that we weren’t serious about space exploration yet and compared it to early aircraft development (in my opinion it even applies to early sea exploration; wooden ships iron men, storms, hostile natives, etc, etc). Both are inherently dangerous with space being far more dangerous, but we weren’t serious about space because we are unwilling to take on risk the way early air pioneers took on risk. at the end, he said something like when he sees entire cemeteries dedicated to the memorials of space pioneers, then he’ll know we are serious about exploring space.

    don’t know that i agree entirely, but i thought it was an interesting perspective, especially as it came from someone that had been there.

    • DocScience

      There was government funded aviation research, by the Smithsonian.

      It FAILED miserably. And to their shame, the Smithsonian for years denied the Wright brothers’ success where they had failed.

      • EdwdLny

        Langley and Manley.

  • gitarfan

    Private citizens have always been ahead of “govt” in opening up new territory. The “new world” wasn’t new for several hundred years when Columbus came. Hunters and trappers were all over North America before govt explored it. Space will see private investment flourish unless govt gets jealous. It had a monopoly on space for many years. What might have been with private investment is something to consider.

  • He_Wei_Jin

    I’m not sure that the Ferdinand and Isabella analogy works. Weren’t Basque fishermen and whalers exploiting the fishing grounds off the North American coast long before Columbus? And unwilling to give up the competitive advantage and share the knowledge with kings and princes?
    We are more likely to more quickly, efficiently and profitably get more than a tentative toehold in space through the efforts of private risk takers and entrepreneurs than through the efforts of bureaucracies and the companies that profit from catering to them.

  • Edward Wright

    “The Columbus analogy is fairly persuasive, but it ultimately it rests on the assumption that things in the future are more or less bound to work the way they have in the past.”

    It’s more shaky than that. Tyson has his history wrong. The stories about Queen Isabella hocking the royal jewels for Columbus are pure fiction — his voyage was privately financed:

  • chip1

    Tyson is wrong. Most historical exploration was privately funded, whether it was the Phoenicians around the Mediterranean, camel caravans across the Saudi desert or voyages to the Spice Islands. Space will be no different.

    The only reason the Moon shot went as well as it did – apart from the 4% of GDP spent – was that it was driven by an arms race with the USSR. War and preparation for war is just about the only thing governments do better than private institutions.

    And, generally, Tyson is telegenic and has a nice voice. His views on space exploration are about as conventional and deeply researched as his views on climate change.

  • DocScience

    While America was discovered with “government” money, it was settled and prospered with PRIVATE money and the massive will and paltry fortunes of millions of people seeking a better life.

  • johnpaul

    Too bad your boss defunded most of your manned space programs.

    Yeah that’s right it’s not enough we’re up to our eyeballs in bureaucrats here on earth… they want to migrate to space.

    Well, since they don’t know how to do anything else but spend taxpayer’s money then just don’t give them money. That will keep them on the ground.
    I would like to add that the success private space is enjoying comes from standing on the shoulders of NASA. We have much to thank them for. I won’t forget what they gave me throughout my childhood.

  • Mallet Head

    deGrasse is highly overrated. He’s quoted with reverence and treated as the second coming of Nickolaus Telsa without the accomplishments.

    • Raul Mac

      For one moment I thought you were referring to Nikola Tesla. My bad.

  • Herb

    Tyson also makes plenty of errors in his dichotomy:

    1. Columbus was not the first European explorer in the Americas. Leif Ericson was.

    2. While Columbus was government sponsored it was not a government operation for pure exploration or prestige, it was commercial. Columbus got Spain to invest by promising a return on investment the very think he says is missing.

    3. Columbus’s immediate successors were closer to entrepreneurs than government agents. They weren’t coming to the New World for the glory of Spain or the Church but as freebooters seeking money and land. Columbus never touched the mainland of the Americas. They were found and explored by freebooters, colonizers, and fishermen all with varying degrees of government financing or even approval.

    The key issue he falls into is not just “history shows how things will always be” but “how things are today is how they have always been”. The strong separation of business interests, especially large ones from government is a relatively new phenomena. To classify Columbus as government and The Dutch East India Company as not government in modern terms is to be ignorant of the reality both operated under.

    • gastorgrab

      Yes, it wasn’t the Portuguese government who contracted Columbus to carry out it’s plan.

      The plan belonged to Columbus. He sought funding for his plan from many different sources.

  • Inane Rambler

    Tyson isn’t an expert on anything besides what he earned his PhD in.

    It doesn’t matter who finances putting a man on Mars, they will run their missions in exactly the same way.

    Columbus didn’t run his ships much differently than an English or Basque fisherman off the coast of Newfoundland would have in that same timeframe. One is “government”, the other is “private”, but it’s a weak analogy to use Columbus since there wasn’t this idea of a split between “public” and “private”.

  • Mark Power

    Tyson is an affirmative action fraud.

  • gastorgrab

    Wasn’t Columbus a Spaniard (born in Italy) who sought funding from the Portuguese to fund his PRIVATE voyage?

  • Cecil Turner

    I’m surprised the comments don’t include a reference to Cabot . . . seems to me to be the obvious response to an argument touting Columbus.

  • Justin Lipner
  • disqus_MHw7a2dXsU

    It’s hilarious that Tyson uses a reading of history to make his case. It’s clear from the reading of history the private sector was making huge leaps and bounds in research and development, before the federal government took over and crouded out private investments, and actually stopped private investments. The largest institutional contraint on human creativity and the advancement of science and technology has been, and will always be, the government. Government is staffed with people who have low regard for everyone else (by Tyson’s own words, private sector investers simply are too stupid to compute risks, costs, and rewards to capitalize on space exploration) and the impulse to prevent change.

    Note to NDT, the government has the most abysmal record of computing risk, costs, and rewards, precisely because they can ignore them. When you can always get revenue because you have a crew of IRS agents, backed up by men with guns, who will simply go door to door and take other people’s wealth to give to you, there is no need to worry about success or failure. You get paid the same regardless. And perversely, if you faile, you may actually get an increase in your budget because bureaucrats know that one of the most effective arguments they can make is “We failed because our budget wasn’t large enough”. Look at what happened to military and intelligence spending after the catastrophic failures, across the boards, that resulted in 9/11.

    He asks why “why is it only yesterday” is it that private enterprise has done something successful in space exploration. The answer is: it’s not. That he thinks so only shows what his level of understanding of history of space exploration actually is. And, as I noted above, since WWII, the federal government has actually had a monopoly on most of space exploration. Due to all sorts of fears, the gov granted itself enormous powers over what can and can’t be done in space.

    As Howard Roard noted, that the notable attention whore leftwing big government loving Tyson would call for even more funding of government is not surprising in the least.

  • Raul Mac

    4 words: Dutch East India Company

  • priya gupta

    The term “New Frontier” refers to the economic and social programs of the presidency of John F. Kennedy.