This morning I attended a panel discussion addressing the topic of whether Stark Industries, the company of Iron Man’s Tony Stark, was an appropriate model for private industry space exploration. Panelists included Mark Street of XCOR Aerospace, John Hunter of Quicklaunch, Chris Radcliff of San Diego Space Society and Dave Rankin of the Mars Society. Former Amazing Stories editor Jeff Berkwits acted as moderator.
As you can easily imagine of a panel composed entirely of private citizens and entrepreneurs, the answer – in most ways – was a resounding “yes.” While the panelists conceded that Stark Industries would be an extreme example of a tech-based private industry conglomerate, they all felt that the next wave of important breakthroughs in space technology would come from the private sector. To say that the panelists were skeptical of NASA and other government endeavors would be an understatement.
Dave Rankin said that while he felt that moving “ordinary people” into space would be an important next step, government agencies and the large subcontractors that service them neither had the creative freedom nor the financial impetus needed to democratize space travel. Instead, Rankin, and several of his colleagues, looked to a new generation of private developers. They compared these groups to the computer clubs of the 1970s that eventually birthed Apple and Microsoft.
John Hunter expressed harsher sentiments.
“When I was in graduate school, some of the dumbest guys I knew were looking for jobs at NASA.” Hunter elaborated, explaining that there wasn’t as much pressure on developing practical, marketable results in the government space agency. He said that his own company Quicklaunch, was interested in one thing only: developing a really cheap launch propellant.
While his colleagues weren’t as quick to lambaste NASA, all of them were critical.
While I found a good bit of the discussion somewhat paradoxical (criticizing large corporations dependent on government contracts out of hand in a panel discussion on Stark Industries seems a little dissonant) and self-serving, which, admittedly I can understand coming from business owners in a public forum, I can certainly see some of what they’re talking about. While small companies may not have the resources to expend that their big business colleagues do, they do have the advantage of being relatively nimble. However, to discount government innovation entirely seems a little hasty.
So, Suvudu readers, what do you think? Is this the future of space exploration, or so much libertarian fantasy? A little of both? Neither?