The Long Space Age….

The Long Space Age….

Photo credit: Janet Donovan

“We have before us, the foremost expert in commercial space travel and the history thereof. The most interesting thing about this book is that Alex has committed a significant portion of his life to getting this done, and all the proceeds go to Yale University,” said Juleanna Glover while introducing Alex MacDonald, author of  “The Long Space Age: The Economic Origins of Space Exploration from Colonial America to the Cold War” at her Kalorama home in Washington, DC.

“What this book is really about is putting into context what we’re seeing today,” responded MacDonald.  “We’re seeing really amazing things. We’re seeing the U.S. Government begin to consider exploring beyond lower orbit for the first time in decades. We’re also seeing billionaires – people like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk – develop fundamentally new capabilities that have the potential to reduce the cost of going into space, and increase our overall capabilities as a nation to explore and develop space. And so, what I started about 12 years ago was to look at the history of this kind of stuff. And when you look at the history actually you find that people like Elon and Jeff are not so unusual, because the people who funded the national observatories of late 19th century or 20th century were essentially Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and the Guggenheim family. Basically, what we’re seeing today is a return to the origins of space exploration in this country. And to give you a sense of how far back space exploration goes, because I could talk forever and what I really want to focus on.”

Alex MacDonald

“Congress refused to fund an astronomical observatory for many, many decades,” MacDonald explained.  “So what we enjoy today as the Smithsonian is basically the result of John Quincy Adams’s advocacy for astronomy. And so this was the kind of language that he used to advocate for astronomy. The influence of the moon, of the planets, our next door neighbors of the fixed stars scattered over the blue expanse in multitudes exceeding the power of human computation and at distances of which imagination herself can form no distinct conception, the influence of all of these upon the globe in which we inhabit and upon the condition of man, it’s dying and deathless inhabitant is great and mysterious, and in search for final causes to a great degree inscrutable to his finite and limited faculties. The extent to which they are discover-able is and must remain unknown. But to the vigilant with a sleepless eye, to the toil of a tireless hand, and to the meditations of a thinking, combining, and analyzing mind, secrets are successfully reveled, not only to the deepest import to the welfare of man in his earthly career, but which seem to lift him from the earth to the threshold of his eternal abode to lead him blindfold up to the council chamber of omnipotence and there stripping the bandage from his eyes bid him look un-dazzled at the throne of God?”  There’s that!

The History #101 night was fascinating since most of us wonder what ever happen to moon walking and the great strides made during the Kennedy years.  MacDonald explained: “John Quincy Adams, advocated for astronomy. And really one can talk about the way in which space exploration was funded by billionaires in the 1920’s, the first liquid fueled rockets. One can talk about how the richest man in California in the 1870’s gave 20% of his wealth to a single project of space exploration. And if the richest man in California did that today, that would be an $8 billion project, privately funded. But I think, really, that kind of language shows that what we benefit from today is a long culture of space exploration in this country that dates back over 200 years.  One final thought to meditate on. When the Declaration of Independence was first read out in Philadelphia, it was read out from a platform that was built in 1769 to observe the transit of Venus. And so even the origins of independence have a tie to the exploration of the heavens.”

Guests were invited to join in the conversation over dinner with a Q and A.  Q: “What planet would you be most interested in our solar system?”  A: “Ah. Interesting question. So there’s a constant debate in space exploration between going to the moon and going to Mars, right? Now these are two places that people think maybe we can develop new settlements. Maybe we can live in one of these two places. People like the moon because maybe we can build mining equipment that can provide propellant to go throughout the rest of the solar system. People like Mars because it has more elements and has at least some form of climate and weather that might be more amenable to life. I’m somewhat skeptical that in my particular lifetime we’re gonna see a huge amount of settlements. But I know that we have the capability to develop vehicles that can travel to other planets. The International Space Station has proven our ability to actually keep people alive and systems alive in space for years at a time. That is the capability that is required to travel to planets, not to land on them, but to travel to them and come back. And so the one that I like to think about is the one that we think about almost never which is the closest planet to us. Does anyone know which one that is? Venus! So we actually have the ability to go to Venus and come back in about nine months. It would be less radiation as a result, and it would be the first time humans had ever visited another world. And so I think that is basically kind of the plan that a number of us here, my colleagues in the space community, were trying to get people to think more seriously about, including that destination in the future of our exploration.”

MacDonald

Q: ” Are those interested philanthropically motivated or profit motivated?”

A: “That was exactly the kind of question I found so interesting. It was all philanthropic. And so when I think about people like Elan and Jeff, when you talk to them, one of the things you know is this is not entirely profit motivated. These are things that they want to contribute to humanity. And so when you look back at the 19th century, you see the same kind of phenomenon. Every single one of the large observatories, and there were three that were billion-dollar scale, Mount Wilson, Mount Palomar, and the Lick Observatory and they were all motivated by interest in legacy. The most obvious legacy one is the James Lick. So he dies and … before he dies, he wants to contribute a legacy. So first he thinks I want to build a large pyramid in the middle of San Francisco. And then he decides he’s going to build large statutes of his parents all around the San Francisco Bay. And people say, ‘Well, maybe those are going to be targets for Russians,’ who were actually not that far off the coast. People were still concerned about them coming down in the 1870’s. Finally, some astronomers get on to him and say, ‘Well, what if you just built the first mountaintop observatory?’ He thinks about it and says, ‘Well, can I be buried underneath it?’ Of course, the astronomers say, ‘Absolutely, sir. You can be buried wherever you want.’ And so to this day, if you ever go to the Lick Observatory, underneath the main telescope, which was the largest in the world at the time, are the final remains of James Lick.”  Wow!

Q: “So how does a profit motive change the equation?”

A: “So the way I think about it is that a lot of these guys recognize they need as much money as possible. When you listen to Elan, one of the things he’s so passionate about is basically doing a communication consultation because he recognized that most of the money is in communication satellites, so the more money he can get from that, the more he can actually plow into things like getting humanity to Mars. So I think basically these are kind of venture philanthropists in the sense that they know that they need to tap into the capital. And they’re also very young, so they’re not yet in the phase of their life where they can just give away the money. So they need to actually keep leveraging as much of the market as possible. So I see them still pursuing these intrinsic human motivations for exploration, but doing it in a way that is as sustainable as they can get.”

Q: “If you had to place a bet, who do you think will be a forerunner?

A: “That’s an interesting one. So this is a plan to try to get people to build very small robotic landers and you can win a certain prize. I think it’s $30 million. I think right now, as long as they get the launch vehicle, I would bet on the Israelis because they have two billionaires backing them  – Sheldon Adelson and then another person who hates Sheldon Adelson. And they both could agree, however, that it was important for Israel to land and show that this was a strong signal. So I’d put my money on them. But Moon Express, I think, is another very viable candidate. They’re an American company who has another plan. So there’s at least a couple of viable candidates which is, in itself, very exciting.”

Photo: Courtesy of Paste Magazine

So where does Stephen Hawking fall into all of this? “I would say Stephen Hawking is, of course, a philosopher of the future of humanity. And one of the things that he’s thought about very deeply is the necessity of at some point leaving this planet if we wish to survive. I’m an economist, so I discount future action very heavily, but at the end of the day, it is going to be important. I think mostly from a cultural perspective, not necessarily a survival one. But a future in which we don’t move out into the solar system and out into the cosmos more generally would be a much poorer cultural future for humans as a whole. One of the things that’s really fascinating about the 19th century when everyone was funding these large astronomic observatories privately was people assumed that all the planets nearby were inhabited because, of course, they were a very religious community at the time, so people naturally concluded if God populated this planet, why wouldn’t He populate the rest of these planets? And so people had assumed we would find alien life very nearby. One of the things that’s been very interesting and unexpected is that as we’ve explored the solar system, we’ve found that most planets are much less habitable than we thought. There are still some nearby of course, the moons of Saturn, some of the moons of Jupiter, that we think are very interesting for finding life forms. I think it’s still a major motivation for why people still go. Yeah, my understanding is that there have been a number of those releases. I think a lot of the systems that they pertained to were military stealth systems, for example. I don’t know the details of all that kind of stuff. It’s really not my area. I do economic analysis on spacecraft. It’s a whole different game.”

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