Why Futurists Get Space Wrong

Government’s role in space requires patience. Missions take years, even decades. The distance our probes cover is vast. Results are far from instantaneous, the costs are huge, and the payoffs are neither immediate nor always recognizable. It’s easy to compare a behemoth like NASA with the much-slimmer, more nimble SpaceX and its competitors. After all, they’re run by brilliant aerospace engineers and dotcom entrepreneurs, while NASA is run, ultimately, by 535 members of Congress, many of them more interested in producing jobs in their own districts than in the efficiencies of missions.

But space is humbling for everyone, and it offers harsh lessons to everyone attempting to enter the field. Newly formed space companies tend to offer wildly optimistic predictions. You can see them in an otherwise authoritative book written by a law professor at George Washington University, Lewis D. Solomon. His 2008 book, The Privatization of Space Exploration, is filled with promises made by private companies at the time. In 2009, Solomon predicted, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic would be carrying tourists on suborbital trips. By 2011, Space Adventures intended to offer customers a trip around the Moon on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. By 2012, Robert Bigelow promised a month-long stay in one of his space hotels. Unlike NASA, he said in a mission statement in 2005, “I’m used to doing things pretty darn well on budget and pretty darn well on time.”

These are truly great Americans, and their optimism, even their hubris, is a strength. It takes a rare confidence to boldly go into space. But hubris can become bad policy when the public believes that the private sector alone can accomplish everything in space. Entrepreneurs have an essential, indispensable role. But so does government, which represents the combined resources of all citizens.