and yet they still just don’t get it…

May 25, 2012

space elevator

Considering that SpaceX is now really close to establishing itself as the first private company to launch a craft capable of docking with the ISS, one would think that Elon Musk should be proud. After all, he invested a lot of money into space exploration expressly for the purpose of helping humans reach space faster and easier. As we venture into space more often, we’ll create more high tech jobs, more commercial spin-offs, and possibly even boost the economy through the partnership between competitive private startups and NASA. But this investment in space is apparently just a waste of money according to an editor at Foreign Policy, who would like to see Musk’s cash fund poverty and disease relief efforts across the world. Never mind that billions upon billions are committed to that goal. Never mind that politics often get in the way of development projects so no matter how much money was committed, it’s bound to go not to the poor who need it, but to a warlord who wants it. Musk is apparently supposed to donate to charities in the developing world, not build the future…

One of the unfortunate truths about the world is that there will always be problems. There will always be child deaths from preventable diseases, there will always be poverty, and there will always be war. Of course that’s not to say that we shouldn’t try to alleviate this sad state of affairs, but we also have to think about the future. I know there are starving people around me and I donate to food banks and soup kitchens. But does that mean this is all I should be doing until no one in my city ever goes hungry? Likewise, does this mean we have to be so concerned with turning the world into a utopia, we need to skip on moving forward? Believe it or not, we do have an abundance of food and medicine to help the poor and starving, and we do have enough money for an infrastructure upgrade in the world’s poorest nations. However, we can’t use all of this money and when we’re trying to throw billions at a problem, things get better until they plateau since all that influx of cash and help will not create a local economy to keep sustaining the population, gets stolen by corrupt officials, or misused by a committee of well meaning development planners at NGOs who think they know best but really don’t. There is such a thing as too much aid and we can leave people dependent on hand outs, not helping hands.

All of the efforts named by Keating already have the world’s attention and there are mountains of donations all around post-industrial nations committed to resolving them. So why can’t we have a few billionaires building the economy of the future in countries not sure where to go now? Why try to shame them into adding cash to a big pile and dismiss their lofty efforts as unnecessary and irrelevant until we help the entire world? Investing a lot of money in space exploration and the technology necessary for that to happen isn’t any less important, it’s just a longer term project which will provide jobs, help fund education, and stimulate new ideas we would need to consider to turn the developed world’s economic doldrums around. Of course investing in space isn’t a panacea for all the financial problems we have today, but they’re a part of the solution, and it comes at what can only be described as a bargain, regardless of what you hear otherwise. At some point we have to worry about what will happen to us rather than appoint ourselves the saviors of the world and realize that when tens of billions of dollars are streaming into poverty-alleviation projects, we’ve provided enough help to turn to what we will need to stay successful. Giving until it hurts is an appropriately passionate appeal to good casues, but actually doing it is a terrible idea. Who are we going to help if we went broke doing the helping?

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  • Brett

    In Musk’s case, it’s a business as well as a passion. If Musk was just funding a manned space flight because he could afford it, then Keating might be on more solid ground asking why Musk chose to spend his money on that instead of other possible charitable projects.

    But since it’s a business, asking why he didn’t spend the money on charity is like asking why people invest money in companies instead of donating it to the poor. It’s just not really relevant.

  • Greg Fish

    You’re right Brett. It seems as if Keating is not aware that Musk isn’t simply throwing millions around on rockets but that he expects to make a profit and his current ISS test is an audition for an extremely lucrative contract.