[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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The Private Sector in Space

by Robert J. Sawyer

An op-ed piece for Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper, Thursday, June 26, 2004

Copyright © 2004 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

Most TV viewers remember Andy Griffith as Sheriff Taylor of Mayberry, or as Ben Matlock, the wily defence attorney. Me, I remember him as Harry Broderick, the main character of the 1979 ABC science-fiction series Salvage 1.

Like Star Trek, another of my favourites, this show had narration over the opening credits: "Once upon a time, a junkman had a dream. `I'm gonna build a spaceship, go to the moon, salvage all the junk that's up there, bring it back, and sell it.'"

As is so common with science fiction, the premise of Salvage 1 has now become science fact. The private sector has begun sending humans into space for motives of pure profit. And I, for one, think that's great.

Last Monday, June 21, 2004, a vehicle bearing the wonderfully appropriate name SpaceShip One became the first-ever private space vessel, travelling 100 km above the Earth. At the helm was Mike Melvill, who, at the age of 63, is now the first private pilot to earn astronaut's wings from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.

Melvill plans to go up again soon. He's part of a team funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen that's looking to snare the Ansari X Prize: US$10-million that will go to the first private-sector concern to launch a reusable vehicle containing three people into space twice in a two-week period. The prize is the brainchild of physician Peter Diamandis, who came up with the idea after reading about how the US$25,000 Orteig Prize had inspired Charles Lindbergh to undertake the world's first solo transatlantic flight in 1927. Since the dawn of powered flight, making money has been a great motivator.

There are 23 other groups vying for the X Prize, including two in Canada: the Canuck spaceships are the Arrow (who says you never get second chances?) and the Wild Fire. Everybody involved in these projects is convinced that great benefits will come from the private sector being involved in manned space flight.

And why shouldn't it be? The public sector — particularly NASA — has certainly botched it. The International Space Station had cost overruns that would make even a military contractor blush. And after the Columbia tragedy of February 2003 — like the earlier Challenger disaster, largely attributable to administrative incompetence — what's left of the U.S. space shuttle fleet has been grounded.

We've had 43 years of space travel based on a recipe of bureaucracy and big spending, and, astonishingly, in all that time, the cost of putting a person in space has remained constant. That's because there's been no competition to drive the price down. But the government monopoly on manned space flight is coming to an end as we try a new set of ingredients: guts and imagination, entrepreneurship and innovation.

And fun — let's not forget fun! Indeed, that was always one of NASA's problems. As science-fiction legend Robert A. Heinlein famously observed, only a government bureaucracy could succeed in making the grand adventure of going into space boring.

Fortunately, despite Mission Control's snooze-inducing efforts, a large segment of the public is still captivated by the dream of travelling in space. And, indeed, the era of space tourism has already begun: in 2001, Dennis Tito become the first person to buy a vacation above Earth, heading up on a Russian cargo rocket to the International Space Station.

What's the appeal? Well, besides the thrill of the ride and the breathtaking views of our own planet, journeys to space also allow you to experience weightlessness. In zero gravity, everyone's an acrobat.

The market is huge. Surveys shows that 69% of males and 57% of females want to take a trip into space — and 70% of those would be willing to pay several months' salary to do so. Patrick Collins of Space Future Consulting predicts that by 2030, the private sector will be putting five million tourists a year into space, visiting dozens of orbiting hotels and sports complexes. The Hilton chain is already seriously working on plans for its first orbital resort.

Of course, tourism is only one part of what businesses hope to accomplish in space. Alloys made there are exceptionally strong because they lack the defects caused when gravity swirls the molten metal. Impurity-free pharmaceuticals can be produced in microgravity by mixing the constituent chemicals in midair, without ever touching containers that might contaminate them. And some superconducting crystals can only be grown in microgravity.

All of those things that can be done in what the space-business community calls LEO — Low Earth Orbit. But, just like Andy Griffith's character on Salvage 1, today's businesses also have their sights set on the moon. For instance, the Artemis Project is a private venture bent on establishing a permanent, self-supporting lunar community. Among the possible uses: the ultimate retirement home. After all, you don't have to worry about breaking your hip when you fall in slow motion and only weigh one-sixth of what you did on Earth.

Now, yes, there will always be a role for government-funded manned space flight. Basic exploration should be done for reasons other than making a buck. And I do believe governments should be working hard to establish permanent settlements off-Earth so that humanity will survive even the worst terrorist or environmental disaster.

But in other areas, the government should butt out, and let the capitalists take their shot. Dan Goldin, the former Administrator of NASA, had a mantra: "Better, faster, cheaper." Of course, he was never able to make that work in the bloated bureaucracy he headed. But those same goals are routinely achieved by businesses. Where governments fail — on Earth or out among the stars — the private sector will succeed.

Andy Griffith's Harry Broderick character had a dream. So do I. I dream of going to space. No government is going to make that happen for regular guys like me. But private business will — because there are customers willing to pay for it. The bottom line is still the bottom line, even out on the final frontier.

[2004 bionote] Robert J. Sawyer's Hominids is the most-recent winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel of the Year, the world's top prize for science-fiction writing.

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