So SpaceX is going ahead with launching their Falcon Rocket on a mission to the ISS tomorrow. Good on them, and I wish them the best of luck. Not because I wish ill on NASA or any of the other government agencies who currently or formerly launch vehicles into space, but because I think the next stage of space exploration is necessarily going to be private.
Governments should be subject to the needs and perspectives of their citizens. Governments also have a huge array of responsibilities. In most cases, it is hard to make a convincing argument that it is prudent to colonize Mars while children starve or any significant portion of a population experiences poverty. On the other hand, private interests operate on different rules and with different incentives.
When the ‘Space Race’ was between two competing superpowers, an incentive existed for both governments to prioritize space exploration – if only to prevent the other side having a monopoly. Since the end of the Cold War there hasn’t been any such competitive incentive, and space exploration has predictably fallen down the list. I doubt any sane individual would prefer a return to Mutual Assured Destruction and the looming fear of mid-20th century, but the loss of space is a cloud in that silver lining.
In the last 20 years we have seen the rise of distributed computing and an exponential growth in technology, with a rate of change that makes five years ago seem like a technological Dark Age (as Charles Stross has pointed out, five years ago Androids and iPhones did not exist, yet now they are ubiquitous). The practical matter of moving stuff into space has become merely very difficult and expensive, rather than monstrously so.
In this context we see the rise of private space exploration as a necessary next step. Governments are cash strapped and risk-averse, particularly with long-term concepts such as space exploration. Space exploration will be the realm of private individuals and groups (which include corporations, but could as easily be co-operatives, families, or other affiliate structures). Private interests can define their goals and risk tolerance much differently, and are less obliged to solve the problems of the world at the same time. Few people criticize Apple for focusing on its customers while children go hungry in Florida, but many would (and should) criticize a government for doing the same.
I propose that the next major phase of space exploration will be driven by private interests, mostly with a profit motive. Asteroid mining is a start, as well as simple ferrying of goods like the planned launch tomorrow. Other possible private goals could be lunar mining, lunar construction as a low-gravity launch site for Asteroid Mining interests, and solar power harvesting. Spinoff private projects will likely include tourism, especially if someone finally manages to build a working Space Elevator.
At some point in the future, likely when space-based industry becomes large enough to be interesting or threatening to governments, states will again take the forefront of space exploration (assuming that the nation-state is still a viable concept). A tourist flight to Low-Earth-Orbit is one thing, but a rapidly expanding asteroid mining industry that is impacting commodity prices will be another thing entirely. One state benefiting significantly from such exploration will likely be an incentive for the rest to get involved. I have no idea what profits might be gained in the Asteroid Belt, but you can bet nobody will want to be left out.
Privately driven space exploration won’t be without its flaws, of course. Just as on Earth, private interests do not always coincide with the best interests of all. A sudden market glut of a particular resource could displace thousands of jobs, as an example. High risk-tolerance could also mean high losses or damage done. In fact, losses and damage are almost a certainty no matter who does it. Private interests without government oversight are not known for treating people particularly well. Many things can and will go wrong, and it will be a long time before space travel becomes as commonplace as your regular commute.
All of that is (informed) conjecture, but tomorrow is a launch that will mark the beginning of the private space venture. I am excited.
Image from Wikipedia.