Domestic Policy

Text, from National Public Radio, Morning Edition

January 26, 2004

Funding Space Travel
by Russell Roberts

I own a telescope.

I own a lot of books on the nighttime sky and cosmology and the big bang.

I get goose bumps when I see a picture of the earth from space.

The Imax space movies bring tears to my eyes.

But I get no thrill from the Bush plan to put Americans on Mars.

As much as I like space and the idea of people on Mars, I don’t see the case for using taxpayer money to get it done. Don’t tell me about all the spin-off technologies like Tang and nanotechnology. Leave the money here on earth and we’ll find that and more. The reason to go to Mars is that it’s inspiring. It’s awesome to use that word in the way it was meant to be used. It fills me with awe.

But lots of things give me goose bumps. Why should I ask everyone else to pay for my thrills? It reminds me of the discussion of public funding for sports stadiums. You hear about all the jobs that supposedly will be created. But the main beneficiaries are the owners, the players and the fans. In the case of space travel, the main beneficiaries are engineers and dreamers like me.

Why not let space travel be a private industry? Could it get off the ground? If all those promises of off-shoot technologies are true, businesses who get there first will reap the benefits.

And if the only benefits are awe and inspiration, private space travel may still thrive.

Right now, that privately financed X-Prize ( of 10 million dollars to the first team that takes three people 100 kilometers above the earth, twice, is a good start. The prize money doesn’t come from corporations looking to make a buck, but from a non-profit foundation funded mostly by individuals and other foundations.

Whether it’s public or private money, it’s going to take a long time to get to Mars. For now, the next time the skies are clear, go outside and look to the heavens. Mars is easily visible to the naked eye to fire the imagination. And you can’t beat the price.

POSTSCRIPT: NPR described this piece on their web site this way: "As much as commentator Russell Roberts loves the idea of space exploration, he doesn't want to have to pay for it." I wish they had ended it instead with "he doesn't want to force others to have to pay for it."

It's an interesting question as to whether private capital either out of romantic or financial motives can finance something of this scope. Most people point to the past and say, look, government has always funded projects like this—look at Columbus. But the reason that was true was that in the past, government was the only source of large chunks of capital. That is no longer true.

Check out the xprize web site at Among other things you'll learn that Lindbergh earned $25,000 for being the first to cross the Atlantic. It was a prize offered by Raymond Orteig in 1919.