There is an extremely pessimistic editorial in this week’s Economist declaring the end of the Space Age. Not decrying the end of the space age, declaring it with some verve. Not much by way of authority, but a lot of verve.
The editorial makes some good points about the expense of space exploration, the vast majority of which has been born by the tax payer (and the US tax payer in particular), but their criticism of the space shuttle seems odd when placed against the absence of a critique of the new Aries rocket systems being designed to replace it. And their off handed dismissal of the International Space Station as “the biggest waste of money that has ever been built in the name of science,” lacks any credibility because it lacks any analysis. Simply saying something is a waste of money doesn’t make it factual. Some reasoning behind that sort of critique might have been nice.
Although I disagree with the editorial’s critical methods, I do tend to agree with their overall conclusion, which is that the era of publicly funded human exploration of space is drawing to a close. With the world still dealing with the effects of the Great Recession, and the US, the largest funder of space exploration mired in debt, it will be hard to convince most citizens that further exploration of space should be fiscal priority.
On the other hand, there is now more private investment in space exploration, at least in terms of getting payloads and humans to low earth orbit, than ever before. If the public sector can encourage the private sector in the proper ways (tax breaks, long term launch contacts, etc.) it may very well be that we could see a resurgence in space exploration. If governments can pay for the pure science aspects and private industry can profit from that science in the form of new technologies, a mutually beneficial renaissance of research and exploration might flourish.
But then again, I’m an optimist. And a dreamer.