In Heinlein’s original stories, a visionary entrepreneur named D. D. Harriman put the first man on the moon. In our world, NASA did it.
Recently, NASA has been in one of its periodic slow periods and entrepreneurs like Elon Musk have been taking center stage. Just this week (I’m writing this on March second) both groups were in the news. Musk announced that two unnamed underwriters had put down sizable deposits for a trip around the moon in the near future, riding in a Dragon spacecraft on top of one of his Falcon rockets. And NASA has announced that the first launch of its Space Launch System booster might carry astronauts around the moon again, for the first time since 1972.
Both are big news, if they happen. Of course, if you follow the space program, you know that there are always more big stories of upcoming events than there are actual events. We’ll have to wait and see.
There are many space enthusiasts who feel that private enterprise should lead in the exploration of space. “Boy genius builds rocket in basement and travels to Alpha Centauri” has a long history in science fiction. I don’t see it.
American industry built all the components of the Apollo missions, and the government paid the bill. Elon Musk has built the Falcon rocket (see photo) on his own, but a NASA contract to supply the ISS pays at least part of the bill. Different, yes, but how different? Privately owned trucks carry goods to your town every day, but on government built roads. Private enterprise is always entangled with government support.
Perhaps it all comes down to a case of, “Who do you trust?” Do you trust private enterprise? Or do you trust the government? Personally, I don’t trust either one of them, so I don’t care who carries the torch for space exploration, as long as it happens.
All this brings us to the anniversary of the day.
Since innumerable interesting things have happened throughout history, and there are only 365 days in a year, you can find something worth celebrating almost any day.
On March 26 (yesterday) or March 25 — depending on which side of the international date line you’re sitting on as you read this — in 2012, James Cameron made a solo descent to the deepest point in the ocean.
The Challenger Deep, in the Marianas Trench, had not been visited by humans since 1960. That expedition was sponsored by the government, specifically the U. S. Navy. Cameron’s visit was self-financed.
Rich men spending their money on their passions, without regard for profit, is not just a twenty-first century phenomenon. Rockefeller made his money in oil, then set up the Rockefeller Foundation. Alfred Nobel made his fortune in armaments, then set up a Peace Prize. Andrew Carnegie made his money in railroads, then set up a chain of libraries across America, including one which illuminated my youth.
Cameron became rich through such films as Titanic and Avatar. His passion for undersea exploration is of long standing. Like Musk with manned space flight, Cameron is continuing an exploration that the government began, then partially abandoned.
Tomorrow we will look at earlier explorers of Challenger Deep.