August 7, 2017 - 5 comments

A Feeling of Ownership

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.

Buzz Aldrin salutes the American flag.

Buzz Aldrin salutes the American flag: July 20, 1969

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.

Zack prepares to shoot a Kickstarter video for our upcoming campaign.

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.


Published by: Zack in Blog, documentary, film, History, Space


Al Koller
August 7, 2017 at 7:23 pm

Public-private partnerships like those now underway with SpaceX, Blue Origin, One Web, and similar activities are the keys to success in exploring space. While “outsiders” debate the wisdom of a NASA-driven program like Apollo, the current approaches are the best way to get back to the moon and on to Mars. When NASA was founded, it quickly added contractors to build upon the political nature of the growing space race, but even large companies have limits on the risks they can take. Space exploration is risky and saddled with political issues: Who owns the moon once a settlement is established? How do we fund programs that require expertise beyond government laboratories? We use a team that gets results from both worlds.

    August 15, 2017 at 7:42 pm

    Well said, Al. We need the private sector’s flexibility and innovative processes, but the public should demand a seat at the table for a number of vital reasons. I confess, I didn’t think about “risk-taking” until you brought it up. As you say, at a certain point, the extremely high-risk nature of space exploration would make a strictly private endeavor untenable. An initiative with a strong public component says “while we understand the process is inherently risky, we as a nation are willing to go forward and share collectively in that risk.”

      Al Koller
      August 15, 2017 at 8:05 pm

      Zack, you get it! I like to keep every tool available in the tool box, just in case. This gives us the best of the best, depending of course on how they are used and managed. Tapping into the American entrepreneurial spirit is absolutely essential, but so is a back plan for indemnification if and when that is needed. I think the key is finding the right combination of people, processes, and roles – and I think we are smart enough to do those correctly. Let’s go for it!

Robert Ahdoot
August 7, 2017 at 10:13 pm

Indeed there isn’t a national cause that bonds us anymore. I tried thinking of what does, and I got The Superbowl, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and 9/11. All these are either commercial activities or holidays (or a mixture). In the case of 9/11, it’s a somber remembrance. But no where in the list do we see any thread of common *cause* or *mission*. The message in this film is spot on. We need to spotlight when we as a people had something like this, collectively.

    August 15, 2017 at 7:56 pm

    Absolutely, Robert. Yours is a perfect example that the societal bonds holding us together are wearing thin. What, as you say, do we as a people celebrate that has no truly commercial component? Maybe Thanksgiving. Maybe the Fourth of July. But even these holidays are losing ground to commercial interests; the real purpose behind their celebration loses more meaning each year. Hoping we can begin to look at some of our accomplishments during Apollo and celebrate them for what they are: great achievements that we as a people accomplished together: public sector, private sector, academics, blue-collar, white-collar, Republican, Democrat, Independent. Our collective history is reaching out to remind us that we are better when we work together!

What do you think?

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