Creating a spacefaring civilization: What is more important, means or motivation?

Companies like SpaceX have developed new launch vehicles that can lower the cost of space access and enable new applications. (credit: SpaceX)

Almost 50 years after the first Apollo Moon landing, there is still no “There” up there. By that I mean there is no Earth-Moon infrastructure, no transportation network, no commercial platforms (except the International Space Station, which remains mostly the province of NASA astronauts and scientists, and the occasional space tourist). And especially, no bases or colonies on the Moon, let alone Mars. The first lunar landings were supposed to be harbingers of future space development upon which a true spacefaring civilization could evolve. That did not happen.

As we have known for many years, the Apollo moon program, despite its auspicious beginning with John F. Kennedy’s inspiring speech to Congress on May 25, 1961, and its stunning success on July 20, 1969, was destined to be a dead end. The true motivation behind Kennedy’s drive to put a man on the moon was the Cold War, and the political/military goal of beating the Soviet Union. As John Logsdon made clear in his book John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon, Kennedy was no starry-eyed romantic who bought into some great adventure unfolding. He simply wanted to increase national power and prestige.

However, in addition to the overall motivation for Apollo, the method or means used to accomplish the mission also hurt the space program. The brute force approach of putting men on top of giant rockets and blasting them into space certainly accomplished the goal of beating the Russians to the Moon. But it did not, simultaneously, create a reliable and inexpensive transportation system, or the infrastructure of space platforms and Moon bases first envisioned by Wernher von Braun at the dawn of the Space Age. Many of us still remember the famous feature article in Collier’s magazine, and the von Braun/Walt Disney collaboration that brought us those exciting space documentaries on the television show “Walt Disney Presents.” The point is, we really did know how to go about this. Unfortunately, the wrong motivation sabotaged the development of this infrastructure (the means), and short-circuited NASA ambitious post-Apollo plans.

Which brings us back to the question: what is more important, means or motivation? Perhaps there is a curious reciprocal relationship between the two. If we look back through history, many of the most significant accomplishments of our species have been driven by flawed purposes, especially where exploration and colonization were involved. The famous Age of Discovery (approximately 1420–1620) was driven, in no small part, by greed, imperialism, and religious fanaticism. However, because so many of our ancestors had the means available to travel the world in sailing ships, more noble motivations, such as scientific exploration, commercial success, and the desire for a better life, were enabled as well. So, it appears that if the means can give almost anyone a chance to participate, it seems to allow more positive motivations to manifest themselves alongside the negative—maybe even taking precedence over time.

History has chronicled instances where this was, indeed, the case. Looking again at the Age of Discovery, Europeans were inspired by the cultural, social, and economic ideas of the Renaissance, and benefited immensely from the many technological breakthroughs of the Scientific Revolution. As a result, world travel and starting a new life became something almost anyone could attempt if they had the courage, a willingness to take risks, and the ability to work hard once they got to the New World. One of the major results of this was the birth of a new nation—not perfect by any means, but the best our civilization has produced so far. A society based on the political, ethical, and moral principles of the Enlightenment, cemented by the rule of law, and holding out the promise of economic opportunity for all.

Today, space enterprise has become the new harbinger of the future, both in terms of technological capability (means) and motivation. The “billionaire cavalry” (as Rick Tumlinson of Deep Space Industries likes to call them) of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, among others, have put us on the right path. The goal of space enterprise is profit, which as motivations go, is far better then the one used to justify our early space program. In fact, the pursuit of wealth (capitalism) could drive the creation of the infrastructure envisioned by von Braun, and in time, far more.

Again, history can offer some corroboration. Capitalism helped to carve this nation out of a vast frontier, and made it the most prosperous in the world. Further, capitalism, in conjunction with our democracy and guided by Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of competition and self-interest, also created an abundance of economic opportunity for all to pursue. The combination of capitalism and democracy makes the promise of space development far more achievable—and far more inclusive. Private enterprise, coordinated and enabled by long-term government commitment, and fueled by another “scientific revolution,” can act again as a driver of wealth and development in this new, far vaster frontier. By creating the means for anyone to go “up there,” and bringing with us the moral and ethical principles of democracy, not only will space enterprise profit immensely, a nascent space civilization could also take root and grow.

Finally, there are urgent economic reasons for large-scale space development. The limited scope of our technology innovation since Apollo certainly took its toll, not just on the space program but on our economy as well. Robert Gordon, in his book The Rise and Fall of American Growth, explains how today’s technological innovation cannot drive economic growth as past innovation did. Much of our technology focus today is in communications and entertainment, unlike past innovation that centered on transportation, energy, and manufacturing. Advances in these three areas, which Gordon calls “The Great Inventions,” drove powerful economic growth that “lifted all boats” and reverberated throughout our society for a hundred years (1870–1970).

Unfortunately, since 1970, anemic economic growth has driven the loss of thousands of jobs, the disappearance of the middle class, and our transformation from a manufacturing economy into a service economy. However, commercial space companies can refocus innovation back on this technology “triad” of transportation, manufacturing, and energy by building a cislunar infrastructure between the Earth and Moon. Doing so could permanently restore strong and, more importantly, sustained economic growth to our nation and the world.

There is already significant progress in all three of these areas, especially in space transportation. Several commercial space companies—Musk’s SpaceX, Branson’s Virgin Galactic, and Bezos’ Blue Origin among them—have made great strides in the last few years. Musk, almost single-handedly, has restored much of our launch capability, and is closing in on rockets that can take us to Mars. Branson and Bezos are developing the capability of taking everyday people to the edge of space. We could actually be looking at commercial suborbital flights within the next three to five years.

At the recent Forum on American Aeronautics, aviation policy experts called hypersonic flight “inevitable.” Spaceplanes, descendants of the mighty X-15 rocket plane, could soon be flying across continents and oceans at speeds of Mach 5. Now that NASA is close to finding a way to address the debilitating “boogeyman” of sonic booms, we are on the verge of revolutionizing air travel, as we know it, and enabling what Robert Zubrin calls, “human travel across space.” The profit implications of all these endeavors are enormous.

Progress has also been made on delivering energy from space with the increased technological feasibility of, and the growing economic case for, solar power satellites (SPS). There have been many recent studies by NASA, the Department of Energy, and even the Pentagon that demonstrates SPS is a concept whose time has come. All that is missing is government support and commitment. With that, a new era of clean, safe, and unlimited energy could become a reality.

And finally, the third leg of the triad, in-space manufacturing, has the potential to change our entire industrial paradigm. From 3D-printable spacecraft and “fab labs” on the Moon and in cislunar space, to mining minerals and raw materials on the Moon, asteroids, and even Mars, the possibilities—like the resources in outer space—are virtually limitless.

Almost 50 years later, we stand poised on the brink once again. This time we have the right motivation, and the capability to create the means within our grasp. And that is fortunate, because we are reaching political, economic, and environmental points of crises that no longer require much vision to forecast. We have a choice. We can go down the path of any of the societal or natural maladies that threaten us, and watch our civilization decline. Or we can choose a very different kind of future, one rich with the promise and potential to elevate and enlighten humankind. I think the choice is obvious. I also think that the time to make that choice is now.