Nearly every space historian practicing at a university today has had the experience of being backed into a corner at a cocktail party by an eager colleague from the business school, asking if the recent move away from government-funded spaceflight and toward private ventures has rendered the “big science” paradigm of spaceflight obsolete. In addition to a quasi-historical argument that is embedded in the question, there is also a hint of politics there, in the form of a subtle assurance that turning rocketry over to the private sector will produce more space stuff at lower cost for everyone. The truth, sadly, usually ruins the party: there has never been any truly private spaceflight; there will not be for some time; and the eager startups offering better rockets to the public are really offering cheaper rockets to the same customer—the U.S. government—that has funded space exploration from the beginning, and that will for the foreseeable future. Throwing a monkey wrench into this sometimes vexing debate comes Alexander MacDonald, a historian of economics with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who offers a provocative challenge in the form of his new book The Long Space Age. Private space exploration, he writes, is not a new phenomenon, but something of an American tradition: if one tracks the history of scientific philanthropy from the early days of the republic (which MacDonald does using some nifty econometric analysis), modern space-watchers would be surprised at just how much private money built the telescopes and experimental rockets that later made the United States a leading nation for space research. How much money? On an inflation- and gross domestic product–adjusted basis, California-based observatories like Lick (1876) and Palomar (1928) cost well over a billion dollars each, more than the most expensive NASA Mars probes today (15–16). The money, furthermore, came from robber-barons, not government coffers, proving not only that Americans have always privately funded space research but that the resources they brought to the table occasionally rivaled later investments by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) or NASA. Why such massive investment in an infrastructure that could not possibly make any money? “Intrinsic motivation” and “signaling” (7) writes MacDonald, borrowing concepts from psychology and sociology. In the case of wealthy American astronomer George Ellery Hale and his heartbreakingly generous father (a Chicago millionaire who lavished funds on his son’s hobby), a sheer love of science provided reason enough: “intrinsic motivation.” For Chicago trolley car slumlord Charles Tyson Yerkes and countless college presidents, however, building first-class scientific instruments made them feel like heroes, or, in a less charitable way, Florentine princes, who traded money for respect and the appearance of erudition: “signaling.” MacDonald suspects, as well, that there may have been, as with all Gilded Age philanthropy, a lingering fear that obscene concentrations of wealth in the hands of a few might provoke social unrest if not spent quickly and well on some kind of public good. Astronomy seemed as pure of an endeavor as they come. The Long Space Age offers a compelling historical argument, to be sure, but its final conclusions may arouse a certain skepticism, which MacDonald dutifully acknowledges. While there is a facile similarity between the philanthropist–telescope-building craze of the nineteenth century and the vast sums spent by SpaceX today, equating the two eras stretches the book’s argument like a sack of potatoes inside a balloon. Modern space startups are not charitable foundations: they exist largely as leaner versions of the profit-making behemoths that produced rocketry for NASA and the DoD during the 1950s and 1960s. Either way, the same customer pays the bills, with new startups investing their own funds mostly to compete for the Holy Grail of space contracting: launching satellites for the National Reconnaissance Office, for which budgets are classified and money is no object. So what really happened to private funding for money-losing space exploration in the twentieth century? MacDonald offers one very important clue: most of the private money for nineteenth-century space science came from the super-wealthy, not from public subscription. (Public subscription of observatories often resulted in expectations of public use, to the scientists’ chagrin.) The golden age of private space science was made possible by a golden age of wealth disparity; in successive decades, the rich had less money to burn trying to impress the poor. By the time income inequality edged upward again after World War II, some members of the donor class had found charitable alternatives to telescopes (religion, education, politics), while for others civic-mindedness had fallen so far out of fashion that surplus wealth was more readily sheltered from taxation than spent on science. (Had the money now stashed in offshore accounts been spent on spaceflight, you would be reading this review on Pluto right now.) The U.S. government, in turn, struggled to meet the scientific-funding shortfall during and after World War II, finding in this new philanthropic austerity not just bad news for science but a national security crisis of the first order. Not that the wealthy were ever very good at creating scientific institutions in the first place, MacDonald suggests: too often, they privileged “edifices over edification” (102), vainly sticking their names on empty buildings. Increasingly, government funds substituted for faltering science philanthropy: rocket pioneer Robert Goddard found that wartime Uncle Sam could write bigger checks than peacetime Daniel Guggenheim, and the U.S. soon found itself with NASA instead of with a “Moon” program run by Gloria Vanderbilt. MacDonald is correct in his ultimate thesis: truly private space science did exist once and was glorious—but it does not exist now, and it may never exist again. And that may be a good thing. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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