Of stars and wars…

…and no folks, I am not writing about the movie; although I did see it and enjoyed every gnarly minute of it, but that’s not what I’m here to write about tonight. Nope.

The International Space Development Conference 2005
was held last week in Washington, DC. Wired featured a nifty story about it today. As I read about all the ruckus that was created by Burt Rutan’s keynote address to the conference in which he basically bitch-slapped NASA and called them money-wasting jackasses part of me was pretty fired up, but part of me got suddenly very worried.

See, I grew up, like a lot of folks in my generation, daydreaming about going into outer space. I was hooked on Star Trek at a very young age and that vision of a United Federation of Planets with starships zipping around the galaxy exploring everything, including alluring green alien girls in barely-there outfits (hey, I’m a guy, what did you expect?), really inspired me. I figured maybe all we needed to learn how to be happy humans was to get into a bigger pond where we didn’t feel so omnipotent and in control, and what pond could be bigger than the cosmos.

And speaking of Cosmos, that’s another thing that turned me into a space junkie. Carl Sagan’s PBS series was one of the few times I’ve been floored by the power of television. I watched every episode with my parents and if anything convinced me that science is the finest expression of the human spirit it was that show.

Maybe it’s the latent socialist in me, encouraged by years of devouring Star Trek (Gene Rodenberry’s concept of the United Federation of Planets is the ultimate Socialist Utopia – and if you’re a fan and that never occurred to you, well, then you just weren’t paying enough attention – but that’s fodder for another article one of these days), but my daydream visions of my flying through space always involved some sort of governmentally controlled entity that manages space travel, i.e. Star Fleet. We’ll call this the Star Trek Model.

In the Star Trek Model commerce, where it exists, is viewed derisively. In the ST:TNG universe Gene Rodenberry even went so far as to try to make one of his new main villains, the Ferengi, interstellar merchants. They weren’t evil because they had dreams of conquest like the Romulans or dreams of never-ending war and conflict like the Klingons. The Ferengi are evil because they love money and hold the acquisition of wealth above all else.

So while I agree wholeheartedly with Burt Rutan that NASA wastes money and resources on poor choices (the Space Shuttle is one of the greatest boondoggles in the history of aerospace and government – even Dubya knows this) I’m not sure I like the idea of the conquest of space going commercial. My fear is that the commercialization of space will inevitably lead to the type of law of the jungle competition for dollars (or Euros or Yuan or Yen) that has marked every other major commercial enterprise in the history of humanity. Let’s call this version of space the Star Wars Model.

In the Star Wars Model government is left trying to deal with what happens when competing commercial interests cannot get along. The entire Star Wars saga is framed in a universe in which a trade dispute leads to the end of democracy and the imposition of a ruthless, blood-thirsty empire with evil at its core. It’s also a much less pretty universe than the one Gene Rodenberry cooked up in Star Trek. In Star Trek the ships are always clean, well maintained and crewed by happy, healthy, fit and enthusiastic folks in spiffy uniforms. In Star Wars everything is filthy and perpetually falling apart – except for the imperial ships, which tells you where the money is all flowing.

I’ve somewhat resigned myself to the fact that future ain’t what it used to be. I’m not likely to vacation on the moon any time soon, or commute to work using my jet-pack or radio controlled electric car, but even if NASA wastes money on useless projects like keeping the Space Shuttles flying (or building them in the first place) I still gasp in awe at the pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope and was fall-down impressed with the most recent mission to send robot explorers to Mars. And I suspect that the problem isn’t so much that NASA makes poor choices. I suspect it’s just an extension of the way that NASA had to sell their initial efforts to send probes into space by putting men in the capsules in order to fire up the taxpayers to feel like what they were doing was Buck Rogers, as Tom Wolfe put it in The Right Stuff.

NASA may waste money and make ridiculous mistakes and misjudgements, but I suspect that if you fully commercialized the launching of craft into space that very few science payloads would make the cut and lots of overstuffed millionaires would be floating around where significant science experiments and discovery should be.

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