Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Live Long and Profit

          By Brian Orlotti

2016 marks the 50th anniversary of Gene Roddenberry’s storied ‘Star Trek’ franchise. It is also the year that SpaceX CEO Elon Musk will make public his plans for privately-led human missions to Mars. Though at first glance the two seem unrelated, they are in fact two sides of the same coin; a what-might-have been and a what-may-be.

Two sides of the same coin. Graphics c/o Scifan World & the Pulp Covers website

Star Trek’s core story has become global legend; future astronauts exploring the galaxy in fantastic spaceships, discovering wonders and battling alien foes. The original series tackled prominent social issues of the 1960s, including racial tensions, cold war rivalry and technological change. The Star Trek franchise posits an optimistic vision of the future centered around government-supported, ideal-driven space exploration.

In contrast, private space missions can perhaps find their best allegory in the 1951 science fiction novel "The Man Who Sold the Moon" by famed scifi author Robert Heinlein.

The novel’s plot revolves around Delos David Harriman, a captain of industry obsessed with being the first to travel to—and own—the moon. To raise funds, Harriman exploits commercial and political rivalries in addition to other legal and semi-legal means. To forestall government ownership of the Moon, Harriman exploits a legal loophole to create an international dispute, then offers to step in and administer the moon as a trusted third party.

Elon Musk doing deals. As outlined in the August 1st, 2016 Wall Street Journal post, "Tesla and SolarCity Agree to $2.6 Billion Deal," the entrepreneur has agreed to allow Tesla Motors to buy SolarCity Corp in order to combine his electric-car and solar-energy companies. Photo WSJ.

After a successful first flight and a subsequent rallying of investors to his cause, Harriman begins preparations for a full scale human lunar settlement. However, he is prevented from personally joining the new settlement by his investors, who now consider him too essential to to risk in space.

‘The Man Who Sold the World’ can, perhaps, be seen as an allegory for the NewSpace industry (i.e. SpaceX, Bigelow Aerospace, Planet Labs, etc.). The novel posits space exploration driven by profit and ambition, rather than idealistic/nationalistic sentiments.

Brian Orlotti.
With the decline of government-related space activity and the private sector’s increasingly prominent role, Roddenberry’s vision seems to have taken a back seat to Heinlein’s.

Live long and profit!

Brian Orlotti is a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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