Phil Plait, the creator of the Discover blog Bad Astronomy, is an astronomer, lecturer, and author. He’s written two books, dozens of magazine articles, and 12 bazillion blog articles.
On Wednesday, January 25th, Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich spoke to a crowd of supporters in Florida. In a short speech guaranteed to create a buzz—online, as well as among space enthusiasts—he declared that if elected president, “… by the end of my second term we will have the first permanent base on the moon and it will be American.”
That’s a pretty bold statement. Unfortunately, it’s also impossible.
I’ll note he followed that up with something that is far more likely:
We will have commercial near-Earth activities that include science, tourism, and manufacturing, and are designed to create a robust industry precisely on the model of the development of the airlines in the 1930s, because it is in our interest to acquire so much experience in space that we clearly have a capacity that the Chinese and the Russians will never come anywhere close to matching.
That’s a lovely thought, but while that’s a more realistic goal, it’s likely to happen whether or not Gingrich makes it to the White House.
His second statement is the easiest to discuss, and to dismiss. I agree with the sentiment, but what he’s saying is already well on its way to being reality. We have several private companies vying to create commercial activities in orbit, including tourism and science. SpaceX has successfully launched rockets to orbit several times, and they are planning to do a rendezvous with the space station in the coming months as a demonstration that they can take supplies there. Virgin Galactic has shown it can do sub-orbital flights, and several other companies are on their way to space. Manufacturing is a far more difficult goal, but once a more reliable and cheaper method of getting to orbit is established, it’s an inevitable outcome.
With or without any possible future President Gingrich, private companies in space is already happening.
In the late 1500s, merchants in England sought to ply the waters around Africa in an attempt to set up trade relation s with India. In a few years several trips were made, and, on literally the last day of the 16th century, they were granted a charter by the Queen to incorporate, given free rein to trade with the East.
This was not done in a vacuum, however. For well over a century European explorers had been laying the groundwork (OK, seawork) for this effort. Sponsored by their various governments, they explored the oceans and improved the technology and techniques needed for this to get done. At the time, this would’ve been impossible for private companies—too risky, and too expensive—so governments did the job. National pride was at stake, as well as military and trade advantages.
Like sea travel, space travel is not done in a vacuum—except in the literal sense. Like terrestrial exploration centuries ago, it’s expensive, difficult, technologically cutting-edge, and dangerous. For a young company, or even an established one, a single mistake could cost them a vast portion of their revenue, bankrupting them. In the video below [starting at 14:50], astronomer and space advocate Neil deGrasse Tyson makes this case. It’s something I’ve argued many times as well.