DARPA reaches for the stars

Give me the capital and we will mine the stars… or at least the asteroids.
Apologies for this not being about football. I’m supposed to be writing about the first Latin American Debt Crisis, but obviously my attention wandered….

The creator of the Internet (with apologies to Al Gore) was DARPA. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency created APRAnet to facilitate research—and it revolutionized the world. Because of this innovation, you get to come to this blog and read about Alabama football and Auburn’s NCAA troubles, and we will not even have to mention what it has done for the porn industry. What began as a defense project provided applications far beyond anything imagined at the time. It is that way with many military applications because the defense industry is working on the frontier of science and technology. So, it was with interest that I read an article on DARPA’s 100-Year Starship project. (Synopsis here. FAQ here.)

The goal of the 100-Year Starship Study is to create private interest and investment in space exploration. Here are a few random thoughts after reading the synopsis.

Why explore space?
DARPA’s conference explored that question and came up with five key “high-level motivations.” The five were human survival, answering the question if there is life out there, the natural evolution of our species, to find new scientific discoveries and a search for the Divine.

All are good reasons. However, they ignored the most fundamental reason to explore space—PROFIT. After all like the prophet said, “The stars are full of (p)latinum.” Ok, so maybe the character Quark wasn’t a prophet, but there is wisdom in those words. The profit motive is one of the best reasons to push into space, and leveraging the profit motivation will provide innovation.

When you consider the migration of mankind into a spacefaring species, you should consider history as a guide. The best examples come from the Age of Discovery. What drove most enterprises to the New World? Profit. Nations backed the venture because of the way increased revenues would augment their power. Individuals invested in the ventures because they expected a return on their investment. Men took sail not only for the sake of discovery, but also for the sake of the sake of gold and land.

Pushing into popular culture again to find another quote, “Human behavior is economic behavior. The particulars may vary, but competition for limited resources remains a constant. Need as well as greed have followed us to the stars, and the rewards of wealth still await those wise enough to recognize this deep thrumming of our common pulse.” (A character from Sid Meir’s classic Alpha Centauri. Yes, I spent way too much time playing computer games in college instead of studying.)

Those trying to encourage the push into space should harness this key element of human nature. Organizers should consider the creation of Space Age equivalent of the East India Company.

You want serious public involvement? Sell shares of stock in a company at reasonable prices broadly to as many people as possible and not to just a few elites who do business with Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley. Of course, this type of venture with a focus on profit eliminates the need for broad popular support of the program. Management would need to please stockholders and not the political class in Washington or the voting public. There is elegance in looking to business as a leader—it skips past the nonsense of America’s political process caused by serious budget problems. Involving the public is good, but depending on it would be a disaster.

One area identified in the DARPA release was the intent to generate enthusiasm among the public for the endeavor. One way suggested was a newspaper ad along the lines of 100 famous persons explaining why they supported the project. However, that is only one way to generate interest. Why not 100 different newspaper ads in cities around the country filled not with celebrity names, but the names of people there on the ground with ordinary or extraordinary accomplishments in a community? Sure an ad in the New York Times gets the attention of elites, but with a goal of communicating to a national audience then ads during an NFL game or spotlights similar to USA Cable Network’s Character Profiles would be far more effective. You want people to recognized neighbors and community leaders so they ask themselves what has my neighbor involved.

The crowd Funding proposal is absolutely what any organization like this needs. You must create a sense of ownership in the project and its goals.

Overall, the ideas are fascinating, and DARPA’s involvement creates an added level of importance. It will be fun watching what comes of this project.