While I sometimes like to make myself happy by thinking of Newt Gingrich as something from another planet entirely, of late he's been making it easier than usual. In various speeches and debates, Gingrich has apparently been pushing the idea that his administration would make Luna the '51st State' (conveniently ignoring various treaties and agreements that would legally prohibit the US from unilaterally claiming the satellite), and even that he would push for a manned Martian expedition. It's a pretty shockingly out-there policy for a Republican, who generally can't get their policies back within the borders of the United States fast enough. Thankfully, Warren Ellis is around to explain exactly what's going on here and, surprise surprise, it's all about votes and job creation.
But let's put aside Newt, and I'll wait for the collective cheers to subside on that idea, because Ellis says something that I think is far more important. Namely, that the idea of space exploration backed by private concerns is a complete non-starter. As Ellis puts it,
"The thing about private spaceflight is that private industry isn’t terribly well known for doing things that don’t have a big fat profit at the other end. And human spaceflight isn’t something that tends to come with a profit function. Mining the moon without, at the very least, the industrial structure at this end to use the mining product for anything is retarded."
It's difficult to understate how right he is. Corporations are guided by profit, indeed in many areas they are legally required to make as much profit for their shareholders as possible, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred a corporation will take a guaranteed twenty tomorrow over a thousand dollars five years down the line. There's very little room for long-term planning in the present corporate environment, and that's a problem when it comes to private space exploration (or exploitation) because there's really no way at all to make money fast out there. Yes, there might be money in all that helium-3 on the surface of Luna or in the elements and ores in the asteroid belt, but there's no way to get it, and use it, in anything like the span of time corporate governance would require. No board of directors is going to authorize the absolutely staggering start-up costs on a venture like that, nor should they, really. Corporations aren't Captain Kirk; risk isn't their business.
But risk is a package deal with exploration, and it always has been. And that's why, even when there were private entities who could theoretically perform such actions, it's always been government agencies and public institutions going boldly into the unknown. Exploration is so expensive, so uncertain and so infrastructurally-intensive that it will always be a matter of public institutions harnessing a civilization-wide agreement to go out and do a thing; there's just no other way to really make it work. And of course, once states have done the exploration, and established the basic infrastructure, and figured out just how to make it all work, the corporations will come along. They just won't ever go first. Which is why it's so important to realize that private industry can not take us to the stars. If we rely on them, we'll never get there; if we wait for it to be profitable to leave our planet, our species will still be here when the sun goes out.
If we're lucky.