I love The Economist. Its arrival on my ipad when I’m on the train or its physical appearance on my doorstep are moments of joy and mark the arrival of the weekend in an utter rational and liberal fashion. In my old age I have accepted that I will agree about 90% with its editorials, even though it makes me feel like I am betraying my leftie roots. In an age were politicians are mainly creators of verbal diarrhoea with very little content and religious nutters are allowed to stand for elected office in the western world again, this newspaper is a welcome beacon of rationality, evangelising deep thought and reflection.
But this week I almost flushed my copy down the toilet.
In its editorial on human space flight it goes for the jugular of history of fifty years of combined efforts to further our understanding of our planetary neighbours, astronomy, astrophysics and science in general. The ISS is being slagged off as ‘the biggest waste of money [..] ever been built in the name of science’, the exploration of asteroids, moons and comets are additions ‘to the stamp album’.
“There may be occasional forays, just as men sometimes leave their huddled research bases in Antarctica to scuttle briefly across the ice cap before returning, for warmth, food and company, to base. But humanity’s dreams of a future beyond that final frontier have, largely, faded”
While the editorial surely gets it right that in times of lean economies there is less money for ambitious scientific projects, big ‘blue sky’ projects will always be necessary to continue our foray into the unexplored parts of science. Moaning and belittling human space exploration is one thing, but in its utter negativity the author completely manages to avoid giving alternatives to government funding.
But what alternative funding methods? What about philanthropy?
According to the current Forbes rich list the combined wealth of the 10 richest individuals on this boring M-class planet circulating a bog-standard sun in a not very attractive outer spiral arm of a rather fishy galaxy in a seedy part of the universe is about 330 billion US dollars. I find it unlikely that any of them will find enough stuff to buy before they die to empty their accounts, and even if they would donate a quarter of their fortune to a scientific endeavour like the exploration of the solar system (or the development of new propulsion drives) their kids and grandchildren would still have enough cash to buy the odd Ferrari and a few third world economies. While I am certainly not the biggest fan of the of Bill Gates one has to acknowledge his legacy of managing to revolutionise malaria research with his generous cash insertion, so there is certainly a proven track record of what private money can achieve when it’s invested wisely.
I happen to be a member of The Planetary Society and regularly get letters from these guys begging for ten dollars to fund their ultra low budget solar sail craft that will be taking off on a Russian rocket next year to demonstrate the proof of concept of solar sailing. So if The Planetary Society is able to kick space science in the arse with just 1.8 million dollars of membership donations, think about what Bernard Arnault (the bloke who owns Louis Vitton and it’s associated outfits) could achieve with a donation of just a tenth of his wealth to these guys (that would be a cool 4.1 billion).
So, up yours whoever wrote this piece of pessimistic and fatalistic tosh. It’s in our nature to push our boundaries and explore, and being devoid of any long term vision does not make good copy. Imagine the next asteroid we land on contains 50000 tons of Rhodium (current market value 40 billion dollars). I am sure you would propose that riches like that would be worth a bit of long term investment and to take the long view would be prudent.
P.S. Note to John Micklethwait: WTF?