Today, we live “in the future”—the future that for decades had been depicted in science fiction, pursued by scientists and engineers, and hoped for by optimistic individuals everywhere. This future, as imagined in the past, had three outstanding features. Human beings would be flourishing in a peaceful, prosperous world based on advances in science and technology; they would be engaging in heroic pursuits; and they would be creating a space-faring civilization.
On July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the moon, it took an act of imagination not to envision such a future. Yet, sadly, the real future—the world we live in today—is different from that positive vision.
To be sure, science and technology have advanced, making us more prosperous and bettering our lives. Advances in medical technology keep us alive and improve our quality of life. A single personal computer, available to anyone today for a few hundred dollars, is more powerful than the roomful of multi-million-dollar mainframes that guided humans to the moon. Endless information flows freely on the Internet. Cell phones, like Star Trek communicators, keep us in touch anytime, anywhere. And we have every sort of consumer electronic and entertainment device.
Furthermore, the Western, industrialized countries, and especially the United States, continue to prosper, and many emerging, formerly impoverished countries are joining the ranks of the enriched.
But in the industrialized West, we also see signs of cultural breakdown. Many cities in America and Europe are corrupt havens of crime, more Blade Runner dystopian than Star Trek progressive. Schools with far more money than they ever had in the past are graduating the illiterates of the future. Many adults don’t know the difference between science and scientology, astronomy and astrology. The threat of Islamofascism shows that hundreds of millions of individuals remain mired in primitive superstition, tribalism, and a lust for repression, violence, and murder.
We have a mixed and confused morality.
And, of course, we are not yet a space-faring civilization. Humans have a tiny, three-person outpost in orbit, but not the huge, orbiting Hilton hotels depicted in the 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. We still don’t have permanent stations at gravitationally stable Lagrange points in space or settlements on the moon, Mars, or Ganymede. We have no nuclear-powered rockets ready to carry humans to the nearest stars at near the speed of light.
Ultimately, the reasons why we’re not a space-faring civilization are many of the same reasons for the problems here on Earth. The main reason is one of values. We do not yet have values that are up to the task of guiding and motivating the development of space. We have a mixed and confused morality—and a culture that is based on and that reinforces that morality.
For those who long to reach for the stars and establish a viable culture, a new philosophy is essential. Even for those satisfied with the challenges and joys of this planet, the success of future societies off this Earth could provide a paradigm for resolving the problems that space pioneers will leave behind.
To fuel their launch to the stars, what they will need is a philosophy of rational individualism.
That might sound pretty abstract. But it really isn’t rocket science.
One reason why space is not yet part of humanity’s domain can be found in economics. Basically, the federal government has dominated space-related activities for half a century. Governments can achieve certain limited, defined, short-term goals—for example, building the atomic bomb or sending humans to the moon—though usually at very high costs to the taxpayer. But they simply can’t commercialize goods and services—that is, bring costs down and quality up, and make them available to everyone. Often, governments get in the way of private entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs are the only ones who can commercialize anything—cars, televisions, airline flights, personal computers, iPods, the Internet, you name it.
After the Apollo moon landings, NASA went from exploration to freight hauling. The space shuttle was a transport vehicle that was supposed to bring down the costs of putting payloads and people up into orbit, perhaps with as many as fifty flights per year. Instead, the shuttle averaged a half-dozen liftoffs annually from the Kennedy Space Center, and the actual costs of access to orbit shot up like a rocket. As the government prepared the shuttle for its first flight in April 1981, not only did it ban government payloads from private rockets (in order to give the business to NASA), but its regulatory regime added to the costs and risks of independent, private rockets, keeping them off of the market.
In the mid-1980s, NASA devised yet another major project: a space station that was supposed to house a permanent crew of twelve, cost $8 billion, and arrive in orbit by the early 1990s. As costs rose, NASA went through one redesign after another, reduced the permanent crew capacity to three, and brought in international partners. A 1995 Government Accountability Office report put the total cost of building and running the station for a decade at nearly $50 billion. The real total cost of the station could be as much as $100 billion by the time it’s completed in 2010.
Why have these government space programs failed? The problem isn’t talent. Most NASA workers are highly skilled and excited about the goals they seek to achieve. The principal problem lies in the very nature of government institutions like NASA.
First, NASA operations are, to a great extent, determined by politics. For example, various NASA centers and projects continue, in large part, because of support by elected officials from the congressional districts and states that benefit directly from their local presence.
Second, because NASA is a government agency using taxpayer dollars, it must secure annual approval for its budget, and its projects are subject to oversight by Congress, the Government Accountability Office, Inspectors General, and others. Like other government agencies, NASA answers not to market demand and conditions but to politicians, whose primary incentives are to respond to political pressures and otherwise cover their butts.
Third, because NASA uses taxpayer dollars, the incentives to be economical, frugal, and innovative are reduced. Failure often means more taxpayer dollars and bailouts—witness the history of the shuttle and station.
Why have these government space programs failed?
By contrast, private owners who put their own money at risk have a stronger incentive to be true innovators and to manage resources wisely. For example, non-toxic liquid hydrogen and oxygen used as fuel to put the shuttle into orbit are contained in a 150-foot-tall external tank on which the shuttle orbiter rests. After launch, just as the shuttle is approaching orbit, it jettisons this tank, which falls into the ocean. Private owners would certainly have bent over backwards not to see tens of millions of dollars of equipment destroyed with each flight. They would have followed up on one of the many plans—for example, those offered by the Space Island Group—to place those tanks into orbit where they could have been retro-fitted as orbiting laboratories, hotels, or honeymoon suites. If those tanks had been placed in orbit with every shuttle flight, there would be over thirty acres of interior space, more than the floor space of the Pentagon, waiting to be homesteaded.
Strictly on the basis of sound economics, space exploration must be privatized. Only entrepreneurs acting freely and under the discipline of profit-and-loss incentives can properly exploit opportunities in ways that will create dynamic, off-Earth civilizations.
How might they do it?
Private parties would probably form consortia to establish space settlements. There are many historic precedents. For example, take the Mayflower Compact, in which the Pilgrims agreed to a form of self-government even before leaving for America. Similarly, settlers crossing the continent usually made contracts concerning who owed what services to whom and how the members of the group would govern themselves.
There also was a kind of market competition among the various groups of pioneers and settlers, each attracting people and capital by offering different values to individuals. For example, religious dissident Roger Williams arrived in Plymouth ten years after its 1620 founding, but within three years found himself at odds with its leaders and went off on his own to found Rhode Island.
The seeds of a competitive system of space-development consortia have already been planted. In recent decades, the government has relaxed many of its more onerous regulatory restrictions and unfair practices vis-à-vis private-sector space exploration. As a result, we are now beginning to see how our future in space might look and how that future will be established—not by governments, but by the efforts of individual entrepreneurs.
Consider the X-Prize Foundation, funded principally by Anousheh Ansari, an Iranian refugee who became a successful businesswoman in America. It’s put up $10 million for any private party that could send a manned craft capable of carrying three individuals one hundred kilometers into space, twice in a two-week period. In 2004, with backing from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Burt Rutan—who designed the first plane to fly around the world without refueling—won the prize. He is now working with Virgin Atlantic CEO Richard Branson to create a fleet of vehicles for space tourism.
In 2006, Space Adventures helped Ms. Ansari become the fourth private individual to pay for a trip to the International Space Station on a Russian rocket (there are now five).
Robert Bigelow, who made hundreds of millions of dollars as owner of Budget Suites motels, founded Bigelow Aerospace. He plans to place in orbit a private space station for a fraction of the cost of the international station. In July 2006, he launched a one-third-size model of the station, Genesis 1, in preparation for the full-scale version. Bigelow has put up a $50 million prize for any private party who can develop a rocket that can place humans on an orbiting platform.
Elon Musk, an immigrant from South Africa and a founder of PayPal, established SpaceX, which has built and tested its Falcon launch vehicles. Meanwhile, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, set up Blue Origin, an aerospace and space tourism company.
Buzz Aldrin, the lunar module pilot on the first moon landing, now runs Starcraft Boosters, his own rocket design company, and the ShareSpace Foundation, which promotes space tourism. Aldrin has designed a “cycler” system that would place a spacecraft into an eternal figure-eight orbit between the Earth and the moon (or Earth and Mars) using hardly any fuel; gravity would do all the work. He also has devised a space lottery concept that could allow anyone the opportunity to go where too few have gone before.
Former Martin Marietta scientist Robert Zubrin, who founded and heads the Mars Society, has devised a mission plan for a journey to the Red Planet that would cost a fraction of the price tag that NASA put on its own initial mission study.
And in April 2007, Zero Gravity Corporation, headed by X-Prize president Peter Diamandis, demonstrated the kind of uniquely personal values that private space efforts could offer to individuals when it donated one of its special services to physicist Stephen Hawking. Paralyzed for decades with Lou Gehrig’s disease, the wheelchair-bound scientist was taken for a ride on a plane that flies parabolic paths, allowing him to experience the same weightlessness felt by astronauts in space. For a few moments, this man, whose mind is great enough to understand the secrets of the universe yet is imprisoned in a useless body, found himself able to float as if free from his illness. When Branson offers suborbital space flights in a few years through his space company, Virgin Galaxy, he will also give a free ride to the world-famous physicist.
What else could such companies offer us as individuals?
We can only imagine.
We see from these examples how economic freedom unleashes the energy and imagination of individuals, and how it allows them to provide goods and services better than do governments. The benefits to be gained by traveling, working, and living in space will be created and offered by private, independent-minded, profit-motivated entrepreneurs.
However, making the space frontier a human domain will pose special challenges. For one thing, long-term workers and space settlers will find it necessary to work together in confined quarters and in close cooperation. This will pose special strains on individuals and their independence. The American frontier also started with small, close-knit communities—Jamestown, Plymouth—but at least individuals had wide-open spaces where they could wander freely, live off the land, become lone scouts or mountain trappers. In space, that sort of independence and privacy will be luxuries, at least initially.
There’s always a tension between the requirements for social cooperation and the need for individuals to pursue their own goals. In a free society with a free market, the driving force is the individual. We each pursue our own goals by creating and exchanging goods and services with one another, and all cooperation is by mutual consent. In this sense, we are all entrepreneurs.
Making the space frontier a human domain will pose special challenges.
But even voluntary, cooperative associations can kill individual initiative and the entrepreneurial spirit. We know how small groups bound together by cultish beliefs can suffocate the individual and become stagnant. Even the cultures of large, advanced economies, such as some in the Far East, sometimes attempt to force individuals to give up their own self-interest in favor of group cooperation or consensus. Such mindsets and practices undermine entrepreneurship and the independent, pioneering spirit so crucial for exploration and development.
So, while a free-market system is a necessary condition for space settlement, it is not a sufficient one. Economics is not enough.
There is also philosophy.
Part of the romance of space settlement is the appeal of the frontier, of the heroic struggle to create new and better societies. But new societies will reflect the morality that pioneers bring with them. Some moralities will lead to better societies. Others will simply transplant the problems of one world to another.
Most cultures on Earth are based on some form of religion. For most people, religion is a way to mark important events—birth, marriage, death. It provides them a form of comfort in bad times, serves as a fount of moral teaching, calls them to better themselves and treat others well.
But religions also involve fantastic and unprovable beliefs over which the most destructive wars have been fought and the most terrible repression has been based; witness the Islamist threat today. The sci-fi novel Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson opens with a murder among the colonists on that recently settled world. The killers are Muslim extremists. That hints at a troubling prospect. As we consider bringing earthly values to other worlds, we must ask ourselves: What values?
Individualist values are required to tame any new frontier and to create a harmonious society in a new world. Initiative, independent thought, personal integrity, self-responsibility—these are the virtues lie at the heart of the individualist code.
Each individuals must think—and be allowed to think—with his own brain and call on the best within himself. He must take pride in himself and his work and hold himself as his highest value. And, if social harmony is to be secured, he must treat others as ends in themselves.
This code is the only proper basis for business partnerships, scientific endeavors, social activities, fulfilling relationships—and personal happiness. To the extent that we inculcate and institute it in private space-development projects, we’ll see our efforts to settle new worlds succeed.
To the extent we thwart and deny that code, however, we’ll see our dreams of space travel fade—just as they have during the decades of government-directed space programs.
The space frontier will be conquered the same way all frontiers have been: through principled individualism. Perhaps those who wish to make us a space-faring civilization and to build a culture of individualism among the stars might designate July 20th, the anniversary of the first lunar landing, as Human Achievement Day—a time to reflect upon and celebrate the independent, creative capacity that made that attainment possible. It would be a fitting time each year to appreciate and cultivate the philosophy that will be necessary to create, in reality, the sort of future civilization that was optimistically imagined in the past.
In the nearly four decades since Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, fewer than five hundred others have followed. The individuals who will open and settle space in the future are still Earth-bound. For them, it will be the spirit of individualism that will draw them to explore the mysteries new worlds.
But even those who remain behind on this planet can find their lives enriched by that same individualism, for its principles apply everywhere in the human universe. To them I say: Wish well your brothers and sisters who reach for the stars. For their successful efforts in the heavens can bring us all incalculable spiritual and material rewards, right here on Earth.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.