In my early years I was a voracious reader of science fiction. In the pantheon of SF writers, the trinity was Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein. Robert A. Heinlein’s 1966 book “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” remains my favorite SF book of all time. Much of my early political thought was influenced by the libertarian principles that Heinlein wove into his fiction.
As I watch the national leadership, and especially Congress, these days, I hear a lot about “gridlock” and the general tenor is disgust and despair over what is happening on Capitol Hill. I don’t think Heinlein would have been so troubled. One of his characters gave this advice to a constitutional committee trying to establish a government:
“I note one proposal to make this Congress a two-house body. Excellent—the more impediments to legislation the better. But, instead of following tradition, I suggest one house legislators, another whose single duty is to repeal laws. Let legislators pass laws only with a two-thirds majority . . . while the repealers are able to cancel any law through a mere one-third minority. Preposterous? Think about it. If a bill is so poor that it cannot command two-thirds of your consents, is it not likely that it would make a poor law? And if a law is disliked by as many as one-third is it not likely that you would be better off without it?”
Listening to that advice makes what we are watching these days in Washington seem streamlined and efficient, doesn’t it?
Before I go on, I need to remind you that I now work in the commercial spaceflight industry. I note that as a disclaimer; no doubt some will say my paycheck influences my political opinion. And whose does not? But I try to remain objective.
Heinlein had a commentary on the use of government funds for space exploration, too. In his novella “The Man Who Sold the Moon” (1949), the business tycoon funding development of the first manned mission to the moon has this discussion with his chief engineer who suggested it was a job for the government:
“I don’t want this to be a military job . . . can’t you get the same results by hiring engineers who used to work for the government? Or even hire them away from the government right now? . . . I’m telling you that this is not a government project.”
In another, more perfect, alternate universe, private industry would have led the way into space. Now we are playing catch up. It has become painfully obvious that the government cannot be counted on to continue the exploration and settlement of the solar system. I say that with great regret. For 32 years, I was a government employee working on the exploration of the solar system, but we just couldn’t get anywhere. I’ve come to the rather painful conclusion that a sustainable model for space travel must look to private commercial industry. After all, America was founded largely by people coming here to make a better life, to make money.
Where are you, Delos D. Harriman?
Which brings me to my last concern: ‘There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch’.
Right now most of the “commercial” entities trying to build “commercial” spacecraft are looking for a handout from Uncle Sam to help fund them. I suppose in a more perfect alternate universe that Robert Heinlein would have liked, this would not be the case. But we don’t live there. For historical reasons too lengthy to discuss here, this industry is going to need some seed money if it is going to get to ignition. But the sooner it turns a profit and gets off the government dole, the better for us all.
So reluctantly, we need the US Government, NASA in particular, to help provide funds to get this new industry over the “initiation energy” hump. This is not unusual in American history; many industries have benefitted from government seed money. But it does come at a price.
The price will be government oversight and regulation. I’ve been on the government side I and know just how onerous that process can be. Not that being completely free of all regulation is a good thing; greed can take over and lead to stupid decisions based on short term financial gain. Perhaps a well-organized and effective industry association with strong principles could police the field, but we don’t have that yet. During start up, well-intentioned but heavy handed government rules can suck the air out of an enterprise.
So this is the dance that we have started; using government money as the seed to bootstrap an industry. I just hope we don’t fall into the military-industrial complex tar baby which has entrapped the big aerospace firms for the last 40 years. In a perverse way I’m reminded of the old saying “Once you pay the Dane-geld, you will never be rid of the Dane.” Once you ask for government money will you ever be rid of the oversight?