This past weekend, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Mark and David Dodson, brothers, talented filmmakers and space passionistas here in Los Angeles. Their new project, The Landing, tells the story of an ill-fated Apollo mission and its mysterious landing in the desert some forty-five years ago. If you can, I highly recommend trying to see it while it’s on the film festival circuit.
We covered a lot of ground during our nearly three-hour conversation–everything from the early days of spaceflight to recent trends in space privatization. I’ve been thinking about the latter topic a lot since then, and wanted to share some thoughts:
Up until the last decade or so, the space program has been entirely public. NASA’s charter called for the creation of a civilian space agency in the interest of our security and general welfare. And yet, this past decade, we’ve seen a dramatic shift towards the privatization of space: from the use of commercial spacecraft and rockets to bolder plans on behalf of private companies to travel back to the moon and eventually on to Mars.
I want to be clear that I am not in any way against the idea of either private citizens or companies participating in space exploration. Cooperation between the private and public sectors is what made past achievements like Apollo possible, and I’m completely blown away by the exponential progress companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are making.
That being said, I do think we should spend some more time considering and appreciating the value of a space program that is predominantly public. In his new book, Apollo in the Age of Aquarius, Neil A. Maher poignantly reminds us that because of its direct connection to taxpayer dollars, “NASA was forced to listen and pressured to respond.” Private entities have no comparable pressure points. Untethered from “the halls of government,” there is nothing holding them accountable to our collective wishes and desires.
More important, however, is the value we all gain by the way a public initiative brings us closer together–giving us the opportunity to share in a truly collective experience. As a public entity, when NASA achieves a great milestone like landing on the moon, we take personal pride in it because it is also our success. When a horrible tragedy like the Apollo One fire or Challenger explosion strikes, we feel a direct sense of loss and grief because it is also our failure. And when NASA astronauts reach a new frontier like Mars, they will explore and open up new possibilities for each one of us because they will also be our ambassadors.
This intimate and personal connection we feel to space exploration is forged largely by its very existence as a public effort. No more clearly did we learn this invaluable lesson than during the time of Apollo–a project that saw hundreds of thousands of people coming together to push the limits of what was thought possible on behalf of American society.
When we cede space exploration to private enterprise–regardless of how impressive their abilities or noble their intentions–we inadvertently remove ourselves from the equation, distancing space and all of the wonderful discoveries it has in store from the societal bonds that keep us together.
It's for this main reason I ask: how much public ground in space are we willing to give up?–not to dismiss the efforts of visionaries like Musk, Branson and Bezos out of principle–but because I wonder if we will truly feel as personally connected to and as inspired by their accomplishments as we did when we as a people landed on the moon.
What do you think? Share your thoughts with us below.