Magazine article Reason

The Surprisingly Long History of Private Space Exploration: America Returns to Its Roots, Thanks to Philanthropists Who Are Literally Shooting for the Stars

Magazine article Reason

The Surprisingly Long History of Private Space Exploration: America Returns to Its Roots, Thanks to Philanthropists Who Are Literally Shooting for the Stars

Article excerpt

SEVENTY YEARS AGO, the Soviets launched Sputnik and, with it, the space race. For Americans who grew up since then, the exploration of space has always been linked closely with the government. Private space companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin may have had successes, but they still arouse skepticism from people who cannot imagine anyone other than NASA or its foreign rivals sending people to the cosmos. But in The Long Space Age, the NASA historian and economist Alexander MacDonald uncovers a rich, multi-century history of privately funded space exploration. In the long view, the age of government-funded space travel may be a just a temporary detour from an older tradition.

In the beginning, the exploration of space took place from here on Earth, with the astronomical observatories of the late 18th through mid-20th centuries. These were funded by subscriptions from local community boosters, by donations from wealthy patrons, and only occasionally by the government. The resources devoted to these projects were equivalent to those of many modern space missions, often as much as a billion current dollars. The feds did fund some successful projects, such as the Naval Observatory and the Smithsonian. But there were also many failures, including a national astronomical observatory proposed by President John Quincy Adams, an amateur astronomer, who warned of the dangers of falling behind the Russians' large telescope. (Think of that as the first space race.) Congress batted down the idea, with members arguing that this was not a federal responsibility.

Space rockets, similarly, were at first a mostly private enterprise. MacDonald recovers the largely forgotten history of Robert Goddard, the American inventor of the liquid rocket, whose work was funded by the Guggenheim Foundation and others. Similarly, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, later absorbed by NASA, started as a student rocket project in the 1930s in an arroyo near the California Institute of Technology. Not until the 1940s was most rocket science conducted on the govetnment's dine


Why did private funders pay for telescopes and rockets? Often, it wasn't about the science so much as the signaling. For example, Charles Yerkes--notorious for monopolizing streetcars in Chicago by means both fair and foul--helped finance the Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin to signal his fundamental beneficence and to rehabilitate himself in the public eye. Any revised perception of Yerkes' character didn't last long, but the facility itself did, and a great many discoveries were later made there.

This motive hasn't disappeared in the age of NASA. The Apollo missions signaled that our space technology was superior to that of the Soviets, a goal that remains a driving force behind publicly funded human spaceflight. For many in Washington it doesn't matter much whether we have actual space accomplishments, as long as we maintain the appearance that we are on our way to achieving things in space.

For philanthropists and subscribers to private telescopes, the aim was to signal that their town or college was ahead of its competitors in science and technology. The science itself often took a back seat: It was always easier to raise money to build a monumental observatory with a donor's name on it than to endow astronomers to actually use it for new discoveries. And the subscription model frustrated the scientists, who had to give up observation time to the subscribers who had paid money for the privilege of looking at planets through telescopes. The modern equivalent of that comes when planetary scientists have to divert mission resources--power, mass, bandwidth, money--from scientific instruments to cameras on space probes, so the taxpaying public can view gorgeous pictures.

The last great private telescope was the 200-inch reflector that first saw starlight in 1948 on Palomar Mountain in San Diego County. …

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