A nice piece on modern technological philanthropy at The Economist:
History is full of examples of rich men with big ideas. The merchant princes who founded enterprises such as the London Company in the 17th century wanted to build bustling empires across the seas. Howard Hughes spent the 1930s testing innovative aircraft and setting aeronautical records, almost killing himself in the process, and founded a medical clinic whose goals included discovering “the genesis of life itself”. But the closest parallel with what is happening today is the gilded age in America.
The late-19th and early-20th centuries saw gigantic concentrations of wealth in the hands of people who created their own companies. Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller held the majority of shares in their companies just as the founders of Facebook and Google hold controlling shares in theirs. The political system was incapable of dealing with the pace of change: in America it was paralysed by gridlock and complacency, and in Europe it was overwhelmed by animal passions. Entrepreneurs, flush with money from new technologies, felt duty-bound to step in, either to deal with problems that politicians were unable to confront or to clean up after their failures. Today’s state may be much bigger, but its shortcomings are no less glaring.
Back then, numerous industrialists, including William Lever in Britain, J.N. Tata in India and Milton Hershey in America, founded company towns that were intended, at a minimum, to combat the evils of industrial civilisation and, on occasion, to create a new kind of human being. Carnegie, a steel baron, and Alfred Nobel, a dynamite tycoon, both became obsessed by the idea of abolishing war for ever. Henry Ford launched a succession of ambitious schemes for improving the world, including eliminating cows, which he couldn’t abide. In 1915 he took a ship of leading business people and peace activists to Europe to try to end the first world war and “get those boys out of the trenches”. “Great War to end Christmas day,” read a New York Times headline; “Ford to stop it.” In 1928 he tried to recreate an American factory town in the middle of the Amazon rainforest.
Fashions change. None of today’s billionaires spends serious money on universal peace. But the psychology of the very rich seems the same. Reforming billionaires down the ages display the same bizarre mix of good and bad qualities—of grandiosity and problem-solving genius, naivety and fresh thinking, self-importance and altruism.
There is a lot of ego involved—the minted are competing with each other to produce the most eye-catching schemes, much as they vie to run the most successful businesses. That helps to explain why the billionaire space race has escalated from sending rockets into orbit to sending spaceships to Alpha Centauri. There is also a lot of misdirected effort. The gift of $100m by Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, has not dramatically improved Newark’s schools. Ford’s Amazonian experiment crumbled into ruins as employees balked at some of his rules, which included serving only American food and compulsory square-dancing. His voyage to end the first world war descended into farce: the press re-christened his vessel “the ship of fools” and the Norwegians diagnosed him as suffering from Stormannsgalskap, or the “madness of great men”. [Emphasis added]
It’s easier to solve technological problems by throwing money at them than sociological ones.
I’d note that, for all of the space accomplishments over the past half century, it’s a tragedy to consider how much more could have been accomplished with the trillion taxpayer dollars spent on it if the primary focus had been to actually open up space, instead of white-collar welfare. That’s whey people spending their own money to do these things is so exciting, and why the future for space is now much brighter than the past.
[Update a while later]
NASA is just a jobs program. It’s nice to see more reporters noticing this, and pointing it out. And it’s always nice to see media people link to my Senate Launch System post. Also, there’s this:
“The critics are right, this isn’t a rational way to run a space program,” political science professor Harry Lambright of Syracuse University told BuzzFeed News. “But that doesn’t matter, because this is the way a space program will inevitably work in a democracy.”
Yes, that’s what the Apolloists don’t understand, and they don’t understand that the only reason we (barely) got to the moon in the sixties was that it wasn’t really about space. That is why the space billionaires are the only hope for the future.
[Update a few minutes later]
Then there’s this:
The real problem, former NASA official Scott Pace of George Washington University told BuzzFeed News, is that the Obama administration’s plans to fly astronauts to an asteroid and then Mars are not very interesting to international or commercial partners, who would rather return to the moon. Building SLS lets NASA keep its options open if the next president decides to look to lunar landings instead, something that Obama seemed to rule out in a 2010 speech.
The problem with that argument is that, as little as we need SLS to get to Mars (not at all), we need it even less to get back to the moon. There is no technical or economic justification for the program, other than as a jobs program.