by Jeff Cunningham
Hands-down the best part of this campaign has been hitting the pavement and talking to fellow Browncoats and others who want to see our descendants living off-world. We tend to fret the setup, but the people we meet make it all worth it. With only rare exceptions, people love the idea of naming the space shuttle’s replacement after Serenity, and our most common response that we receive is for the con attendee to take the Lord’s name in vain in some way and demand that we hand them a pen to sign on!
Every once in a while, though– maybe one out of one hundred– we encounter someone who reacts not with indifference nor apathy, but with something akin to actual hostility. We’re talking about dropping their “indoor voice” and taking a tone that can best be described as shrill as they loudly proclaim that they will not support “corporations exploiting space.”
We always try to meet it with a smile and the whole “dish full of honey” approach as the proverb goes (Chris tends to be better at that than me), but of course it ruffles our feathers ever-so-slightly for a few minutes until we strike up a conversation with the next guest. I mean, think about what “that guy” is implying:
- A bunch of hopeless-romantic engineers and geeks who idolize the Apollo astronauts and are trying to build rockets to send people to Mars are actually an “evil corporation”?
- You’re accusing us, a couple of misbehaving Browncoats, of being shills for this boogeyman you’ve imagined?
Most of all, what truly bothers me is that the implied declaration that that 1% of the crowd makes with such extreme statements is that only the Alliance– I mean, the government and their employees, should be allowed into the Black. As someone who has dreamed of going into space ever since I saw the space shuttle as a boy, I can’t help but take that personally, and I think that everyone else who has ever entertained similar aspirations is right to take it personally, too. If I want to build my own ship and go, where does anyone get off telling me I have no right?
And really, how is that “exploiting” anything? Space can’t be “exploited.” Saying that we ordinary people do that by leaving Earth is like saying it’s somehow morally wrong to hop a flight to spend the holidays with family because we’d help Southwest Airlines “exploit” the skies (well, okay, that may be true of United, but I digress).
A recent editorial at Ars Technica got me thinking along these lines again, and after some consideration, I realized that maybe I should give that one out of one hundred con-goers a little benefit of the doubt. The article is about the somewhat inaccurate way that the supposed “rivalry” between Blue Origin and SpaceX has been played up in the media, but his reasoning gave me pause, and I now wonder if part of the problem isn’t that I’ve been misrepresenting the new space race when I try to bring the average, uninformed con attendee up to speed with stuff that hasn’t made the news in the past five years.
We tend to describe this revolution in how people access and interact with the Black as “the privatization of space,” but after reading the Ars Technica piece, I’m starting to feel like that wasn’t the best choice of wording. Space is not being privatized, the space program is. Routine, “grunt-work” tasks like delivering satellites, cargo, and soon– Bhudda willing– astronauts are being contracted to private outfits that have developed the capability to do the same job (in some cases, a better job) than NASA does for far less. Millions, nay, billions of taxpayer dollars stand to be saved that can then go to other purposes (though given the 60-year long trend in NASA’s terminally ill budget, it’s unlikely that Congress would let them hold onto that cash) or not be taken from us to start with. As AT’s senior space editor put it, “when [private space companies] compete, we all win.”
He also hit the nail on the head in said article with what I realized is the more accurate way to characterize current events. The bigger picture of companies and garage startups going into space and doing business with each other and with governments in space is one of democratization in space, in the truest sense of the word. I think back to Kicksat, where this guy raised a Kickstartr to launch hundreds of paper-thin, postage-stamp-sized satellites, and everyone who donated a minimum amount had one of them reserved in their name broadcasting a small data message. In essence, hundreds of people got to say, “I put something in space.”
I’m personally excited by the Open Space Agency, which makes free, downloadable plans available for the public to construct their own HD-quality telescope using inexpensive democratized manufacturing techniques like 3D printing, with the intent to network them all together into the single largest ground-based observatory in existence.
Then, there’s SatNOGS, an open source project that won the 2015 Hackaday Prize that provides more free plans and software with the intent of building a network of ground stations to facillitate better, uninterrupted command and control with small satellites like KickSat or student projects. With some cheap electronics and parts from the hardware store, you can have your own in-home Mission Control.
I fail to see how any of this is a “bad” thing. I can’t even see how this is benefitting corporations, be they helmed by “bad” or “good” people. If anything, what we’re seeing is space finally being liberated from government control, almost skipping industry entirely, and landing in the hands of the people. More than ever before, the notion of a future where any man or woman can captain a ship of their own and misbehave as they please seems not only plausible, but within sight– and it only comes closer with each passing day. And really, what true Browncoat wouldn’t want to see that?
Part of the reason we’re excited by our letter-writing campaign is that we love the idea of playing some part in making this a reality, and we hope you do too. If you do, write Elon Musk and Gwynne Shotwell and tell them– because when you’re hard at work building and testing the most advanced rockets in history, a little encouragement does not go amiss.