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The idea of a privately run space travel firm, for people with experience of the British rail franchise system, might be a bit unnerving. But as a rocket made by the Californian company SpaceX becomes the first private-sector craft to set off for the International Space Station, it’s time to hail the interplanetary entrepreneurs.
As The Economist pointed out a couple of weeks ago, of course, it’s not actually as groundbreaking as all that, in certain senses. It’s not as though civil servants got us to the Moon; private companies made all of the Nasa rockets of the Apollo and Saturn missions. Lockheed Martin and Boeing, together with other companies, built the Space Shuttles. But they were under direct contracts, and being paid costs plus a total fee. SpaceX has been offered a lump sum, and takes the risk of overspend itself. This mission is unmanned, and its cargo contains nothing that anyone will miss too badly if it all goes wrong; a manned flight is expected to take place in the future if this one goes to plan. But even if the Falcon rocket and the Dragon capsule blow apart in a cataclysmic ball of flame, they’ll carry on. The future of space travel is going to be private.
“When deep space exploration ramps up, it’ll be the corporations that name everything: the IBM Stellar Sphere, the Microsoft Galaxy. Planet Starbucks,” said the gloomy narrator of Fight Club, and while he’s not quite right about that (planets tend to have very boring names like Kepler 22b) some might find something distasteful about profit-led missions to Mars. But human exploration has rarely been selfless. Christopher Columbus had his eyes on lucrative trade with the Far East, as did Marco Polo. Shackleton and Scott may not have been after money, but there was glory and fame at stake. And national pride, of course, was behind the original space race: would Neil Armstrong have stood on the Moon if the US, scared by Yuri Gagarin and Sputnik, hadn’t been trying to flex its muscles in front of the USSR? There’s nothing wrong with the profit motive, and if SpaceX and its competitors Orbital Sciences Corporation, Blue Origin, Boeing and Sierra Nevada can make space flight profitable, then good luck to them.
But more importantly, for those of us who want to see mankind push further out, this is the only way it’s going to happen. Western governments simply don’t have the political will to force these big prestige projects through any more, without an enemy to intimidate or a world to impress. The free market is the only way of applying human innovation to the problem. And the bottom line is that space exploration is cool: as Sam out of The West Wing says, “It’s next. ‘Cause we came out of the cave, and we looked over the hill and we saw fire; and we crossed the ocean and we pioneered the West, and we took to the sky. The history of man is hung on a timeline of exploration and this is what’s next.” Whether or not the rockets have “In Partnership With Intel” or “A Hewlett Packard Initiative” down the side of them doesn’t matter; the point is that they’re going. I don’t care if they rename Mars “The Ernst & Young Red Planet”, I want us to go there.