A Rudderless NASA

More thoughts from Mr. Papadopoulos. I don’t have time for a detailed critique right now, but I find it amusing that he thinks Neil Tyson is a reliable source about the history of exploration:

“In the history of civilisation, private enterprise has never led a) large, b) expensive, c) dangerous projects, with unknown risks,” said astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, during a talk for Big Think. “That has never happened.”

That is just nonsense on stilts, based on apparently a grade-school understanding. Columbus himself had already raised half the money privately. Cabot’s expedition was privately funded, based on a patent from Henry VII. Hudson’s expeditions were funded by British merchants who were seeking the Northwest Passage. The mouth of the Columbia was discovered by a seal trader. The vast majority of exploration of the Americas and the West was privately funded.

[Update at noon]

I’d forgotten about this post from last year. There is no evidence that Columbus got any money from the government.

17 thoughts on “A Rudderless NASA”

  1. Which doesn’t even touch the illogic that just because government has taken on big projects this somehow makes it impossible for some billionaire to do so.

  2. Henry the Navigator got most of his funding by being head of The Order of Christ, whose assets remained private instead of being given to the king. The other source of his funding was by being granted some of the rights to all the profits resulting from trade with lands he discovered, along with various other monopoly rights.

    As for figuring out how best to sail and navigate safely, the US Navy still keeps a copy of Bowditch on every vessel. The book, first published in 1802, was not in any way the result of a government effort.

    And as I’ve said before, the Age of Exploration was the period where expeditions went out and met all the people who’d been living for tens of thousands of years on land discovered and settled by private enterprise.

    1. Remember, too, that the line between public and private was less sharp during the age of kings. The monarch essentially owned the nation and operated it as his personal corporation. The Spanish government was really Ferdinand and Isabella, Inc.

      So, even if F&I had financed Columbus, it’s unclear how we would apply that analogy today. If you take Tyson’s argument seriously (and believe his history is correct), then the Windsor family should be financing Britain’s space program. But America is more problematic, since politicians are not allowed (in theory) to use government funds for their own personal profit, as monarchs do.

      1. But America is more problematic, since politicians are not allowed (in theory) to use government funds for their own personal profit, as monarchs do.

        Thanks for the bitter laugh. While in theory, there’s no difference between theory and reality. But in reality, there is. Enriching oneself is the biggest reason people go into politics. All that talk about “service” is for the rubes.

  3. People confuse government with funding because government accumulates funds. Government isn’t required. Funding is. This may explain much of governments antipathy toward the rich. The rich can blow their cover.

  4. I would have thought an astrophysicist would have some knowledge of the Carnegie Institute of Science. I could say more, but Tyson’s comment shows profound ignorance. I realize the Carnegie Institute isn’t the best example today, but if you know the history, it is actually one of the best examples that an astrophysicist should be aware.

    1. Surely he should be familiar with James Smithson’s famous will that stipulated that if his nephew died without an heir, his fortune would go to “the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge .”

  5. What is the news? NASA has been rudderless since the end of Apollo, just drifting from one “program of the day” to another as Administrations change and forget NASA after they take office.

    The best thing for space policy in the U.S. would be just to put NASA out of its misery. Give a couple billion of the money saved to NSF to fund space science and let NOAA take over the weather sats. As for the rest, along with the ISS, just sell it off. Maybe even sell the U.S. portion of the ISS to China, that will make Mr. Putin’s day 🙂

    But the New Space contractors, the Old Space contractors and the several Congressional districts that live off the NASA pork will prevent doing the logic thing with NASA, so expect it to keep drifting…

  6. Ok, so this is Wikipedia, and I’d like to be certain of the numbers, but there was a lot of private money that went into the East India Company. (The exact funds need clarification.)

    In 1596, three more ships sailed east; however, these were all lost at sea. Two years later, on 24 September 1598, another group of merchants having raised £30,133 in capital, met in London to form a corporation. Although their first attempt was not completely successful, they nonetheless sought the Queen’s unofficial approval, bought ships for their venture, increased their capital to £68,373, and convened again a year later.

    I think many who believe in the “Government Is The Only Ones Who Can Do It” are simply incapable of understanding the ingenuity of the human mind. In fact, selling “stocks” to fund an enterprise is a perfect example of an ingenious solution, and that is what the East India Company did.

    1. The Eat India Company is a poor counterexample. By then the risks were approximately known, and that an enterprise could still profit even if it lost 98% of the crew and 80% of the hulls.

      1. I really don’t understand your point. Where did you get these figures? Are you telling me that sailing to Java in 1600 wasn’t dangerous? And are you saying there weren’t any unknown risks? They had ocean going vessels by then, and some halfway decent maps. That’s about it.

        We’re building the space-faring vessels and have excellent maps.

        But don’t worry. You can wring your hands on Earth while some of us go into space. Personally, I’d take the risk of dying if I had one shot at traveling in space.

    2. Folks forget the model of the “government is the only one who funds exploration” only dates to World War II when government funding replaced private funding in science and exploration. Robert Peary wasn’t funded by the government, but by private funds via the Peary Arctic Club. Same for Richard Byrd until his 1939 expedition which the government funded because of the security issue of the Nazi’s exploring Antarctica. The only previous Antarctic research the government funded was the Wilkes Expedition in the 1840’s as part of a general survey and mapping mission by the U.S. Navy, a mission that produced maps that were still in use in World War II.

      Its time for science in general, and space exploration in particular,to move beyond the government entitlement mentality. Shutting down NASA would be a good step in this direction and would accelerate space economic development as well as space exploration.

  7. The argument between an all government approach and an all private approach is in opposition the the reality that both will be players and both are needed.

    1. the reality that both will be players

      If you believe that, you didn’t read the NASA Authorization bill that House Science passed this week. Or you didn’t understand it.

      The bill (and others like it) make it quite clear that NASA is not going to be a major player in exploring the solar system. Congress won’t let them. Even if you believe NASA can accomplish the goals Congress has set out for them — the goals are trivial.

      Wishful thinking will not change that. It’s time to face reality.

  8. Tax farming was still a serious and respected financial expedient for your Renaissance Prince. There barely *was* a state in the 1490s outside of China. Since the funds were secured with extensive monopoly and patent grants, a good case can be made that the Crowns *did* “finance” the expedition, by the standards of the time. The basic building-block tools of state finance hadn’t even been invented yet, and wouldn’t be until the very later years of the age of discovery, although a lot of those tools were invented as expedients to finance the fleets and armies needed to maintain ownership over the new lands.

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