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Tuesday, September 02, 2008


Letter in the Herald today. I have previously said why going to space by paying for X-Prizes is economically sensible & except from full blooded libertarians who think ANY government economic action is wrong in principle & full blooded members of the "LibDems" who think ANY economically useful government action is wrong in principle (sect 5) have had no real argument.

That argument is therefore won/ignored & this letter is about the cultural reasons for space development. We are told that we live in a "2 cultures" society where people are concerned either about art or about science & I went to some length not to criticise spending on art but to make this letter about how anybody who wants a united culture must wish to see spending not monopolised by either. The Herald have edited out bits marked [ ]. These were a comparison with the £1 billion annually spent on windmillery, which I regard as the opposite of progress & an economic justification for the project.

What we spend money on as a society shows what we value. If the "great & good" say we must spend £100 million for paintings because they are indeed magnificent achievements so be it. [I do begrudge the hundreds of billions we waste on Ludditism, windmillery & the theory that "nature" must trump mere human achievement.]

But I think we should spend at least comparable amounts on progress. Just as 2 centuries ago a government prize of £20,000 led to the development of a way to measure longitude, making ocean travel far easier, & an X-Prize of $10 million was enough to stimulate development of Spaceship One & Virgin Galactic, experts say that an X-Prize of £280 million ($500 million) would be enough to produce a private enterprise reusable shuttle able to fly us to orbit at a price comparable to flying to Australia.

[If it cannot be done then the prize will not be won. This is a bet where, if you lose you get your stake back. Ignore the unlimited economic impact of developing the resources in space & of having our country play a major part in it.] Surely the value to the human spirit alone of becoming a spacegoing civilisation is far more than a couple of paintings.

"Reaching for the Moon" once meant seeking an unattainable goal. Have we declined so far that now, when it is attainable for the price of government's pocket change, we are so fearful of innovation that we turn away from it?

UPDATE Jerry Pournelle has put this letter on his blog as well . I am almost becoming a regular fixture which is a considerable honour.

I'm a big believer in X Prizes to promote space development, but I don't think it's something that governments should be involved in (apart from the military side). There's plenty of money floating around the private sector to sponsor a fund like that, it just takes a few guys with both money and vision. Unfortunately, although there's still plenty of money in Britain (even with the recession, we're still one of the world's richest economies), and we've certainly got the technical and industrial capability for some ambitious space programmes, as a nation we seem to have become averse to trying great things. I find it shocking that we haven't had more space activity going on so far.
I would love the private sector to put up the money for this but I don't see it happening. As Chairman Deng said moving in the opposite direction "it doesn't matter what colour a cat is as long as it catches mice" & I am prepared to see this cat in state or private colours so long as it gets done. Adam Smith was in favour of government spending to produce canals & harbours since the benefit to the community was far greater than just to the canal owners & Captain Cook or Lewis & Clark are examples of explorations by government which had enormous pay offs for society. I regard space development in the same light.
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