My friend Neil deGrasse Tyson seems to have stepped in it. Commenting on his radio show Star Talk, Neil said that the private sector would not “lead the way on the frontier,” presumably referring to the opening of space. This simply stated truth has caused howls of outrage from New Space acolytes. How could he say such a thing? Well, because it happens to be true.
Neil isn’t against private spaceflight. He stated quite clearly in his monologue that he hopes the future will hold many more private space efforts. Tyson believes that government must lead in the development of the new frontier of space because of risk posture. The things that we must learn how to do in space are difficult and have many unknown aspects. Typically, private companies have neither the capital nor the inclination to take on exceedingly risky things, especially risky things on which any possible return on investment is so distant in the future.
These are not outrageous statements. As business precepts, they seem little more than common sense. Yet one would think that Tyson had pronounced by fiat that the private sector would be denied their shot at space. In part, Neil’s real sin is that his stance stands in contrast to space impresario Elon Musk, who recently claimed that he would be sending people to Mars in 10-15 years. Tyson doesn’t believe that. And neither do I.
What are the relative roles of government and the private sector on the frontier of space? Is space really a “frontier” in the sense that we usually understand that term? John Kennedy is often associated with the “New Frontier” (which actually referred to his administration’s policy initiatives, of which space was only one) but space advocates (including myself) have used this analogy for some time. In part, driven by the dreams of science fiction, we tend to view space as a 19th Century American once viewed the West – as a new frontier to be explored, tamed, used and settled.
An article published in National Review looked at this analogy in detail and drew some disturbing conclusions. Charles Cooke claims that as the frontier of space has gradually closed (due to a wide variety of complex factors), the American polity is becoming more like that of Europe (i.e., an individualistic, self-reliant frontier mindset is being replaced by the insular, risk-averse attitude commonly associated with the entitlement state). According to Cooke, frontiers were places to which the malcontents of society drifted, replacing their secure, complacent existences with both opportunity and danger, while those content to remain behind drifted toward a more collectivist mindset, “secure” within an ever-growing government structure. When the frontier closes, avenues for both risk and opportunity become scarce and life naturally drifts toward subservience, more collectivist and less individualistic (and he might have added, less productive).
This seems to be an interesting explanation for certain trends in American life, but is it really true that space as a frontier has been “closed?” When comparing two historical events, one can never get the analogies precisely correct because circumstances and conditions (if not human nature) are always different. During the westward movement in American history, a sequence of events developed. After the initial explorations, there followed a period of limited use, usually with some significant government presence. Lewis and Clark’s first exploration of Louisiana was followed by other exploring expeditions, including mapping by the U.S. Army (such as the mission of Captain Zebulon Pike). This probing was accompanied by roaming mountain men, societal misfits who made a marginal living trapping and hunting in the wilderness. Typically, the first settlers were cattlemen – individuals willing and able to turn the alleged disadvantages of the frontier (wide open spaces separated by great distances, with scarce water and less timber) into an advantage (raising a product that could transport itself to market). The U.S. Army was ever-present on the frontier both to keep the peace and to ensure that property rights of the pioneers were not violated.
At this stage of development, most settlers (traveling to Oregon Territory or California) used the great frontier trails to transit the continent. However, once the transcontinental railroad was built, the development of the interior of the United States rapidly followed. The infrastructure now existed to get agricultural products to markets on both coasts. This allowed farmers to displace stock ranching as the primary economy of the west. The economic expansion that followed saw towns built by entrepreneurs and new growth fueled by customers. By the early 1890s, most accessible land had been brought under cultivation and the frontier was “closed.” Throughout this process, government was never far away, although as towns grew, local civil authority would eventually supplant army control and protection.
Does this sequence of development have any relation to the concept of space as a frontier? Possibly it does. In regard to space beyond low earth orbit, we are currently in our “Lewis and Clark – Mountain Man” phase of development – the robotic probes to the Moon and planets, followed by human exploratory missions to the Moon. These are tentative, uncertain steps – missions to characterize and measure the properties of the new frontier and assess its possibilities for future exploratory (and possibly, utilization) efforts. As with the western cattlemen, the first settlers will be those who can take advantage of what’s available from the local environment, regardless of whether it is a different resource or a familiar one in some unusual state that requires conversion. The most useful resources in space are solar energy (to generate electrical and thermal power) and water (which has multiple uses for human life support, energy storage and as rocket propellant). Both commodities are available in abundance at the poles of the Moon.
Because no one has ever extracted useful products from the natural materials found in space, their legal status is uncertain. If there was an “ice-rush,” who would own and process the claims? A recent piece by Leonard David explored some of these issues with experts in existing space law. As was true in the American west, law and property rights in space are nebulous. There will likely be differences of opinion on issues of ownership and title between entities, both national and corporate. For this reason alone, government must have some presence on the frontier. It may be a military presence – there already is such a presence now. An extension of their duties would not be out of the question. However, the civil space program could conceivably serve the same role, especially if it were engaged (as it should be) in technical research designed to understand the issues and payoffs associated with resource development. What form do useful materials take in space? How might they be accessed and processed? What techniques of extraction and refinement are optimal? The private sector must have answers to these and other questions. With few exceptions, they cannot be fully addressed and answered by the commercial sector alone.
In this instance, government has a crucial role to play – the role of risk mitigation. Any single issue might be resolved by private companies, but a coordinated assault and a development of a viable solution to the entire problem is likely to be accomplished only by a supervised, coordinated effort. This is a process at which government can excel but one that is usually anathema to industry (except for rare – and illegal – cartels). This simple fact – and the concurrent need for a legitimizing, legal regime to be developed (an activity that only government can accomplish and enforce), suggests that Neil Tyson has stated the issue correctly. Governments lead the development of the frontier. Not because it is the “right thing” but because it is the possible thing.