the gee whiz factor won't cut it

March 12, 2009

Remember the space race and the Apollo era when humans got to walk on the Moon, space was the final frontier and we were all just decades away from living a life much like an episode of a campy sci-fi flick? For most of us, it’s all in the past and we know full well that lunar landings were about national pride and political incentives first and foremost. But some people still can’t let go and have spent the last 30 years calling for a brand new commitment to space travel and exploration through flashy appeals to our imaginations.

So we can create a million jobs in a dire recession by committing ourselves to space? That’s all well and good, but exactly how are we going to do that? Yes, there’s something about creating new types of space vehicles, but how will it generate 20,000 jobs? To who are all of these launch vehicles going to be sold and what’s the demand for them? Is there a target market in mind for these machines? When it comes to asteroid mining, how is it going to be done, who’s going to do it and just how many jobs will it create? And the same can be said for today’s ideas of space tourism since relying on a new flavor of the month for wealthy thrill seekers isn’t as much of a business model as a speculative little venture that could be tossed aside when enough people have flown and it’s become a bore.

This is not to say that space travel or space exploration can’t create jobs. In fact, having a huge infrastructure aimed at exploring the cosmos would create a lot of high tech, well paid jobs but only if all this exploration can ultimately pay for itself. What good is investing money into a new launch vehicle if it doesn’t get used all that much? All ideas and projections which rely on NASA having a nearly bottomless wallet stuffed with tax receipts and an unlimited scope in its quests to explore other planets and map the universe, are little more than a gamble. The budget gods giveth and the budget gods can also taketh. Without a major incentive and with national pride’s place on our priority lists being replaced with the economy, NASA isn’t about to go out and buy new launch vehicles without a very good reason to do so.

Of course the groups of space enthusiasts think they’ve listed good reasons that range from a new set of technological leaps to political competitions. And they have. But the problem is that this is all they’ve done. Anyone can give a laundry list and urge us to do something. The really big problem is the details and establishing a realistic way that space exploration pays for itself. It’s not enough to draw up a potential Mars habitat and declare that doing this will generate lots of jobs. Sure it will but what’s the payback? Why should we spend tens of billions of dollars on a project that can’t pay for itself? What do you get with a flood of investment in a venture which doesn’t have a tangible payoff? You get a bubble and after three of those taking ever bigger hits to our economy, one would think we’d want to stop doing that.

I’ve always been fascinated by space and I’m all for space travel. But in order to create a lasting commitment to space travel and exploration, there needs to be something more to the pitch. If we could have some more details, stats and strategic analyses, it would be a good start. Barely masked desires of going into space for the sheer thrill of going into space and living our sci-fi dream, aren’t an economic panacea and shouldn’t be pitched like one. Answering a crisis made by a bubble by getting us to invest billions into another one didn’t work last time and it’s highly unlikely to work in the future. It’s great that we have people thinking about how to get us to the final frontier but right now, it’s time for a little tough love. Undermining their mission by trying to get us to invest in a space bubble is not going to help them win many fans.

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