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Space Businesses Government The Almighty Buck

Neil deGrasse Tyson Says Private Business Will Not Open the Space Frontier 580

Posted by samzenpus
from the what-the-market-will-bear dept.
MarkWhittington writes "Neil deGrasse Tyson, the famous astrophysicist and media personality, offered something of a reality check on the potential of commercial enterprises to open the space frontier without the aid of government. Specifically referencing SpaceX's CEO Elon Musk's boast that he would establish a Mars colony, Tyson said on a recent video podcast, 'It's not possible. Space is dangerous. It's expensive. There are unquantified risks. Combine all of those under one umbrella; you cannot establish a free market capitalization of that enterprise.'"
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Neil deGrasse Tyson Says Private Business Will Not Open the Space Frontier

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 30, 2013 @03:06AM (#44714165)

    But I hope he's wrong. Chances of anyone in government coming together for long enough to get something like this done again are slim, especially without a military reason.

  • by Seumas (6865) on Friday August 30, 2013 @03:09AM (#44714179)

    It doesn't really matter, because private sector is our only option. Adjusted for inflation, we spent more in each year of our last dozen years of military actions than on NASA in 55 years. Doubling NASA's budget seems trivial. Hell, tripling or quadrupling it (especially in consideration for the kinds of returns we get, technologically and economically across all of society) seems insignificant.

    But it isn't going to happen.

    If we wait for a government and a citizenry that is more compelled by blowing up brown people overseas and pushing authoritarian and corporate agendas, it is never going to happen.

    If we wait for a government and a citizenry that doesn't want to spend the money to cure cancer, cure aids, feed starving people -- all things that are entirely reasonable with fractions of the funding we spend on some of the most controversial and possibly unnecessary expenses in this country -- then what fucking hope have we of ever finding the progressive spirit for human advancement within our collective selves for funding space efforts?

  • Really? (Score:1, Insightful)

    by msmonroe (2511262) on Friday August 30, 2013 @03:14AM (#44714201)
    Yeah just lost some respect for some one that I would normally say is brilliant. Space is risky and people are going to die, that's an unfortunate fact of life. I don't think government changes that for a lot of reasons. Usually exploration of a frontier is done historically by those seeking profit even if a government originally financed the exploration.
  • by wonkey_monkey (2592601) on Friday August 30, 2013 @03:18AM (#44714223) Homepage

    It's not possible. Space is dangerous.

    So was crossing the atlantic in a boat. So was heavier-than-air flight. So was getting into space in the first place. So was going to the toilet in the middle of the night 100 years ago.

    It's expensive.

    So was... well, you see where I'm going with this.

  • by phantomfive (622387) on Friday August 30, 2013 @03:25AM (#44714245) Journal
    Yeah, he said " Space is dangerous. It's expensive. There are unquantified risks."

    And he thinks that will stop private enterprise? If the potential for profit is there, then those have never posed an obstacle. The hard part is preventing business from sacrificing life and limb in pursuit of profit.
  • by jfruh (300774) on Friday August 30, 2013 @03:28AM (#44714255) say that it's an example of free enterprise in space is laughable. The company's most high-profile missions -- the Dragon capsules to and from the ISS -- are fully paid for by NASA. SpaceX is essentially a government contractor. It's "profitable" because the government is paying it do things (and because it can do those things more efficiently than the government could itself, for a variety of structural reasons). So, yeah, I have no doubt that Elon Musk could set up a Mars colony if the U.S. government paid him to do it. I'm just not sure that really constitutes "private business" doing the job.

  • It's not possible. Space is dangerous.

    So was crossing the atlantic in a boat. So was heavier-than-air flight.

    But there were riches to be had if you risked that crossing in a boat - there isn't in space. Etc... etc... And, as he notes and you conveniently ignore, the Atlantic wasn't opened by private enterprise. The same goes for heaver-than-air flight. From the NACA to the enormous jumpstart that came from truckloads goverment cash spending on research, training pilots (who later became available for civil employment), aircraft production, etc... etc... (especially in the two world wars)
    Cheap soundbites only make you look wise to the uneducated and kool-aid swillers.

  • by gargleblast (683147) on Friday August 30, 2013 @03:36AM (#44714291)
    And I suspect he should look up the definition of the word Entrepreneur sometime.
  • by bruce_the_loon (856617) on Friday August 30, 2013 @03:36AM (#44714293) Homepage

    They did plan it, engineer it, build it and pay for it. Falcon and Dragon was their accomplishment.

    Unless you're talking about the space station, which is then scraping the slimy mud under the bottom of the barrel. That's like saying the first transatlantic flight was not a massive credit to the builders and aviators because the towns were already there and built by other people.

  • The real reason (Score:5, Insightful)

    by sir-gold (949031) on Friday August 30, 2013 @03:50AM (#44714335)

    Tyson hit the REAL reason why serious private space flight will never happen, even if he didn't realize it:

    "...There are unquantified risks..."

    If the risks can't be quantified down to a concrete set of numbers, no insurance company will offer coverage. Without insurance coverage, no corporation has the balls to actually take the risk.

  • by Penguinisto (415985) on Friday August 30, 2013 @03:53AM (#44714347) Journal

    He's probably both.

    I can prove him wrong with two words: commercial satellites.

    I can prove him semi-right with a slightly higher word count: It will likely take some heavy-duty research to help get the costs down to under $100/kg or so, but once it hits that threshold, then you'll likely find a shitload of companies falling all over themselves to strip-mine space for everything from aluminum to methane (assuming a vessel could be made to send the stuff down w/o it burning/boiling off during re-entry.) It'll also open up colonization, albeit on a small scale.

    The reasons why? Sure there's unlimited distances, but there's also unlimited potential for wealth, and a lot of folks are going to give it a shot. Most will fail miserably. Many will see death, dismemberment, and spectacular horror. A few however will succeed - some will do so enough to make them wealthier than anyone could imagine.

    Not much different from the state of things in 1493 Europe, if you think about it.

  • by oDDmON oUT (231200) on Friday August 30, 2013 @04:01AM (#44714375)

    Many major exploratory endeavors were subsidized:

    Columbus, subsidized by Queen Isabella.

    Louis and Clark, commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson and subsidized by the US government

    The transcontinental railroad, subsidized by the US government via the Pacific Railroad Acts of 1862 and 1864.

    The interstate highway system, which enabled US citizens to truly explore their own country was brought about through the US taxpayer at the behest of Dwight D. Eisenhower.

    NASA was subsidized.

    The initial ventures into "cyberspace" came about through the direction of DARPA, an arm of government.

    In fact, looking back, private industry hasn't really gotten involved until a clear profit potential was identified. So yeah, I'm going to have to side with Neil on this one.

  • by tmosley (996283) on Friday August 30, 2013 @04:06AM (#44714397)
    Actually, that is very likely. Simply being intelligent doesn't make you immune to bias, especially in areas outside of your expertise (here an astrophysicist is playing at being an economist). Liberals tend to look down on industry while believing strongly in government.
  • by asmkm22 (1902712) on Friday August 30, 2013 @04:07AM (#44714407)

    Commercial businesses need more than just "potential" profit, especially if they are going to be spending the insane amounts of money that space exploration will demand. There is currently no company that can realistically make something like a moon colony happen, much less a mars colony, because there needs to be some kind of return of investment.

    We can't even get a company to successfully trail blaze and revolutionize a source of clean energy to replace fossil fuels, so I don't know how in the world anyone thinks we'll do something even more difficult, expensive, and risky like manned space exploration any time soon.

    It's not a lost cause, however. It's just not something that's going to happen until a mars rover unearths a huge diamond deposit, or discovers some martian species capable of picking fruit for cheaper than the Mexicans. THEN, you can bet your ass some company will step up and suddenly have a plan.

  • by Taco Cowboy (5327) on Friday August 30, 2013 @04:11AM (#44714421) Journal

    ... but at the current pricing, it is still HIGHLY improbable.

    Although entrepreneurship can go very VERY FAR, it still needs to follow what the balance sheet tells it to do.

    After all, businesses survive/thrive purely because of profit, and no business can engage in loss-making endeavor for too long.

  • by physicsphairy (720718) on Friday August 30, 2013 @04:13AM (#44714427) Homepage

    Space is dangerous.

    Which doesn't matter as long as people are willing [] and the government doesn't step in to protect us from ourselves. I think the fact that it's dangerous has been much more of an impediment to NASA than it would be for private companies. When national pride rides on the mission success you have to attenuate risk to a degree that impedes the rate of progress. In any case, the progress of techology is constantly making all aspects of space travel safer, cheaper, and more feasible, which is why we are finally starting to see private space tech taking off. It could be that designing a robust space vehicle soon becomes as trivial as designing a luxury car.

    It's expensive.

    And potentially very profitable. Huge chunks of valuable metals floating around waiting to be mined. Potential for improved synthesis of high-value products in zero-G, or exploitable power which can be beamed back down to earth. Opportunity and adventure for which rich persons who would otherwise be building $1 billion yachts can pony up the ticket price. Entertainment value for the billions of earthlings watching the space colony reality TV shows. And then all the capitalizable charity and investment from people who just want it to happen.

    There are unquantified risks.

    Present in every undertaking, and the confrontation of which is what is known in economics as "entrepreurship."

    I do completely agree that more government funding would be nice. But I think it's a mistake to downplay the promise of private space technology in order to make that case. Especially because doing so is going to chase away investment money, which, unlike the congressional budget, Neil Degrassie can definitely influence. In some ways, I don't think it's good to discuss feasibility at all. Space tech has been all about taking what is not feasible and making it feasible. It was never a given the Apollo missions would make it to the moon. And it's not a given that you and I are going to see someone land on Mars. But I'm willing to support Elon Musk, or NASA, or anyone else who is going to try, and I'm not going suggest they can't do it, because I have to hope they can.

  • by Jade_Wayfarer (1741180) on Friday August 30, 2013 @04:21AM (#44714453)
    Relevant quotes from Arthur C. Clarke:

    "Every revolutionary idea seems to evoke three stages of reaction. They may be summed up by the phrases: 1- It's completely impossible. 2- It's possible, but it's not worth doing. 3- I said it was a good idea all along."

    "The limits of the possible can only be defined by going beyond them into the impossible."

    And my personal favorite:

    "If an elderly but distinguished scientist says that something is possible, he is almost certainly right; but if he says that it is impossible, he is very probably wrong."

    With all the respect to Neil, my bets are on Musk and his likes in this one.

  • by oDDmON oUT (231200) on Friday August 30, 2013 @04:25AM (#44714469)

    Of your three examples, it seems to me the only real contender for a purely corporate endeavor is the Massachusetts Bay Company.

    The Hudson's Bay Company, and the East India Company in particular, appear to be more quasi-governmental concerns, birthed by royal fiat, benefiting those in government who invested, allowing ample plausible deniability for inhumane actions against indigenous people and whose assets were eventually folded back into government.

  • by Alef (605149) on Friday August 30, 2013 @04:36AM (#44714511)

    And obviously you didn't watch TFV. Quote from it: "The first Europeans to the New World were not the Dutch East India Trading Company. It was governments funding government missions. Columbus drew the maps, established where the trade winds were. Where are the hostiles? Where are the friendlies? Is there food there? Can you breathe the air? They come back with this information. Then you can establish a capital market evaluation. 'Cause now you know there are riches here but not there; you can go here by this route but not that one. Then you can turn it into a profitable enterprise."

    He thinks private companies should do more of the work in space, he just thinks there are too many unknowns for it to make business sense for anyone to push the frontiers.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 30, 2013 @05:19AM (#44714647)

    ... but at the current pricing, it is still HIGHLY improbable.

    Although entrepreneurship can go very VERY FAR, it still needs to follow what the balance sheet tells it to do.

    After all, businesses survive/thrive purely because of profit, and no business can engage in loss-making endeavor for too long.

    Not quite sure whether to laugh or cry at the amount of irony coming from this when referring to a country that is trillions in debt. Seems "for too long" has been redefined.

  • by shia84 (1985626) on Friday August 30, 2013 @05:28AM (#44714669)

    If by "developing its capabilities" you mean "analysing, understanding and applying NASA knowledge from the last 5 decades" to which they have full access then yes, they did that at some point and are still doing it. However, I'd be very surprised if their own research added even close to 1% to the heap. Just look at the outright silly disparity in amount, scale and scope of experiments, the size of the funding and R&D staff, etc. between the two.

    They are basically a private extension of NASA with a significantly less risk averse decision making process, but also much less accountability. Not that I have anything against that, I think SpaceX is awesome, but I also do think that Tyson is mostly right.

  • by K. S. Kyosuke (729550) on Friday August 30, 2013 @05:32AM (#44714683)

    especially in areas outside of your expertise

    An astrophysicist telling a car engineer that space is dangerous and that the space people don't know all the risks? Surely he's way outside his comfort zone here!

  • by Alef (605149) on Friday August 30, 2013 @05:41AM (#44714719)

    Very likely? I'll give you that it is possible that a "random slashdot poster" is more intelligent and insightful than "one of the brightest minds of our time", but you can't honestly think it is usually the case?

    It seems most posters in this story haven't really bothered to watch TFV (go figure). Unlike the impression you can get from TFS, Tyson says he thinks there is too little private enterprise in the space industry, and that it's taken too long for them to get there.

    The point he is making is that when it comes to pushing the frontiers, mapping planets and such, the business case is tricky. So he thinks there will continue to be a need for governments to fund this, if it is to continue, much like basic research.

    I'd say that the presumption that private enterprises will always do everything better is the biased opinion, if anything.

  • by Alef (605149) on Friday August 30, 2013 @05:49AM (#44714749)

    I can prove him wrong with two words: commercial satellites.

    Oh really? What do you figure he said that this proves wrong? You know, because he specifically argues that private companies does things like transporting stuff into space better than government can. You'd known that if you bothered to watch TFV -- I know, this is Slashdot, what am I expecting?

    What he is talking about is missions to push the frontiers, like mapping planets and such, where it's hard to find a clear ROI for a private investor.

  • by meglon (1001833) on Friday August 30, 2013 @06:07AM (#44714799)
    What i'm saying is, you and your pal are entirely discounting EVERYTHING that NASA has done. Without everything THE GOVERNMENT has done since WWII in research and development towards aeronautics and space exploration, Elon Musk certainly would not have funded all of that on his own to get to where he is now. Lets not forget the bigger picture: had NASA not existed, with all that GOVERNMENT research and taxpayer money, Elon Musk might never have been who he is at all, given what the NASA programs contributed to solid state electronics, miniaturization, computers, communications, material science, and all sorts of other stuff.

    This is a very common problem in the US... people are too egotistical to think that the reason they are where they are is that they've stood on the shoulders of this country to get there (to co-opt a compelling meme). We are who we are, our nation is what our nation is, BECAUSE previous generations have invested in the future to make this country better for the next generations (up until now.. now we have a bunch of asshats doing nothing but bleeding the country's future dry because they don't want to live up to the responsibility of investing in someone elses future).
  • by K. S. Kyosuke (729550) on Friday August 30, 2013 @06:18AM (#44714819)

    I can prove him wrong with two words: commercial satellites.

    What have commercial satellites in common with a Mars base? Commercial satellites are being launched by private companies because the government paved the way for them in the 1960s and 1970s. There are no live humans on board. Nobody to cope with the radiation and the microgravity. There's vast commercial interest in having a satellite fleet, even short-term - especially short term. Where's the commercial interest in sending a man to Mars? You're saying "commercial", and yet commercial companies can't see beyond the tips of their noses. Anything requiring more than ten years in the future is "not a viable business plan" for the shrewd MBA. You're talking about space mining, but who's going to do all the primary research? Because it surely weren't the commercial satellite companies who did the primary research on geosynchronous satellites! We can't even begin to design the technological processes to mine and process asteroid material unless we know what exactly is out there, and the first asteroid probes have been sent very recently. Guess what: they were sent by NASA, not by commercial companies! Yes, I believe that there will be a day when commercial space mining will be commonplace affair, but I don't think that pure commercial endeavours will be the ones to pave the way to that.

    Not much different from the state of things in 1493 Europe, if you think about it.

    So you're saying that if the Apollo 13 had died in the accident, Mrs. Shepard and Mrs. Roosa would have simply told their husbands "of course you have to go, we expected a lot of people to die in space anyway"? Human life has an entirely different value in 1493. Nobody cared about the survival of expendable, uneducated sailors back then. How many have died for every single successful discovery voyage? Because you can bet that every double-PhD scientist or engineer dying beyond Earth's orbit will be treated like a national catastrophe. That won't last forever, of course, but the beginnings won't be easy.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 30, 2013 @08:02AM (#44715201)

    No, it's an astrophysicist telling us that voluntary association (i.e. free choice) can't possibly achieve what coercive authority (i.e. government) has.

    And I say that's bullshit. The only thing coercive authority has over voluntary association is the ability to force people to pay for things they wouldn't otherwise choose to. (Otherwise they'd already be funding it, wouldn't they?) Well, that's about to change, because people are beginning to get very interested in the possibilities of space industry.

  • by jdigriz (676802) on Friday August 30, 2013 @08:17AM (#44715283)
    Funding for space goes up in Republican administrations because space exploration has traditionally been an outgrowth of the armaments industry. Put a capsule on a Titan II and it's a rocket. Put a warhead or several on it and it's an ICBM. Building and testing peaceful rockets helps national defense.
  • by oh_my_080980980 (773867) on Friday August 30, 2013 @08:55AM (#44715471)
    You should lookup the word Investor sometime: Dangerous, Expensive, Unquantified Risks, are all things investors AVOID.

    Try again Potsy.
  • by Rockoon (1252108) on Friday August 30, 2013 @09:27AM (#44715747)

    Funding for space goes up in Republican administrations because space exploration has traditionally been an outgrowth of the armaments industry.

    ..and what about funding of the NIH and NSF?

    To add to this, funding for the Federal Department of Educations doubled under Bush Jr (its one of the first things his administration pushed for.)

    You need to look at what these politicians do, not what they say.

    Democrats constantly talk about how Republicans hate science, want to destroy education, hate medical research, and so on.. but the budget numbers across the board tell a different story. The Republicans are by no-means saints, but the Democrats constantly lie about the issues we are discussing today. It is the Democrats that actually don't put the money where their mouth is.

  • by Teancum (67324) <> on Friday August 30, 2013 @09:28AM (#44715755) Homepage Journal

    Commercial satellites are being launched by private companies because the government paved the way for them in the 1960s and 1970s.

    Nope, you are wrong here.

    Commercial satellites were first developed not by the good graces of the U.S. government, or even the Soviet Union for that matter. Instead the first practical communications satellite (and commercial satellite I would note too) was launched by AT&T as a part of the Telstar program [] Keep in mind that AT&T paid for the satellite development, paid for the rocket to launch it into space, and even paid for the launch pad services at a premium rate. Unfortunately the rocket and the launch pad were government owned and required special legislation to be passed by the U.S. Congress just for AT&T to be granted permission for the privilege of being able to go into space.

    The other stupid thing about this whole venture by AT&T is that once they proved that commercial satellites could be successful, and furthermore that a real business opportunity existed so entrepreneurs could actually make money by sending satellites into space, special legislation was enacted that actually prohibited anybody else other than a competitor to AT&T could launch satellites into space. It was a forced government monopoly that essentially treated satellites as a regulated utility company.

    Far from the government being a trailblazer of going forth and proving that satellites could work and earn money, the government actually screwed things up and prevented commercial spaceflight from happening for more than 40 years after commercial spaceflight efforts had been proven successful. I think that has damaged the U.S. economy and only in the past decade has commercial spaceflight efforts even been permitted to happen in meaningful ways that in earlier decades simply were illegal.

    This lack of freedom to even try has been by far and away the worst part about government space policy in the 20th Century. I'm not even convinced that the government was the only option for developing rockets either, but the one thing that made building rockets so important to the government in the 1950's and 1960's (not so much in the 1970's) was that it provided a good platform to place nuclear bombs for ICBMs and shorter ranged missiles. The whole business of sending stuff into space was mainly a side-show of technology that could be reused for other things at the same time.

    I'll also note that one of the reasons why the USSR achieved so many "firsts" early on with rockets is that the nuclear bombs they had to fly were so much larger than the bombs built by America that they simply needed the larger rockets. The same ICBM used to deliver the huge nuke to America could also be used to launch a capsule big enough to carry a cosmonaut into space.

    Note also that by about 1970, the needs of missiles and the needs of vehicles going into space diverged enough that they became different vehicles. The design requirements for an ICBM is not the same as what you want to use for sending "fragile cargo" up into space including communications satellites or crewed vehicles. This is also why funding for spaceflight in both the USA and the USSR was cut substantially, even though the public relations benefits from continuing the spaceflight programs still had some benefit. This is also why Neil deGrasse Tyson's notion of government funded space is never going to happen either, as there is no purpose other than minor public relations benefits to the governments involved to see that it occurs.

    The first NASA astronauts going to Mars will be greeted by a crew from CNN covering the landing live on the ground under the lander... and a party will be held honoring their arrival when the rest of the people in that part of Mars gather together for the celebration. NASA astronauts or for that matter government employees will not be the first to go there.

  • by wiit_rabit (584440) on Friday August 30, 2013 @11:31AM (#44716997)

    Change the paradigm.

    You don't need water, oxygen, etc... if you don't send humans. Private enterprise will do the cost analysis, and I bet they will send very sophisticated robots first. Go to the Asteroid belt to mine for things, go into low/medium orbit to develop new materials and manufacturing processes, etc... All with a focus on what is the best return on investment, not what political whims are fashionable.

    I agree with others that Kennedy's speech about going to the moon was brilliant, but we were developing heavy lift capability anyway for the military, and maybe starting a 'space program' deflected some of the criticism that would have come about of we had developed the heavy lift capability, etc... with only military interests in mind.

"Consequences, Schmonsequences, as long as I'm rich." -- Looney Tunes, Ali Baba Bunny (1957, Chuck Jones)