A century before Bezos and Musk, rich men were already funding space exploration

Robert Goddard, the father of liquid-fuel rocketry, breaks down the problem.
Robert Goddard, the father of liquid-fuel rocketry, breaks down the problem.
Image: NASA
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If you think of space exploration and the United States, you probably imagine NASA’s Apollo moon rockets and “one giant leap for mankind.”

But you shouldn’t be thinking about big government.

Instead, picture a billionaire who earned a fortune building the infrastructure for a booming California economy, searching for a legacy-making investment in technology to highlight his accomplishments. Or picture a science-fiction-loving engineer who tests his rockets through public-private partnerships with the US government and is obsessed with colonizing other planets to preserve the human species.

You doubtless thought of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, whose companies Blue Origin and SpaceX are breaking aerospace barriers today. But that’s not who we’re talking about.

Rather, think of their predecessors. One, James Lick, was a real-estate baron who profited from land deals during the California gold rush, then in 1876 spent the equivalent of $1.5 billion today on the construction of an observatory with the world’s then-largest refractor telescope in the Diablo mountains of California. The other, Robert Goddard, invented and launched the first liquid-fuel rocket in 1926, arguing that “the navigation of interplanetary space must be effected to ensure the continuance of the race.”

These are famous figures in space history, but a book by NASA economist Alexander MacDonald helps put their contributions in the correct context. In The Long Space Age, MacDonald gathers new data about spending on space exploration to argue that private citizens, not the government, have been the key backers of American space exploration.

“In the long historical perspective, the American movement out into space is much more than the story of ‘one giant leap’ by its government in service of geopolitical competition; it is a cumulative story of the many small steps of its people,” MacDonald writes. The spending on space by the likes of Musk and Bezos is “a persistent, enduring trend that is now reemerging” (author’s emphasis).

Consider the data set MacDonald assembled of spending on observatories—the 19th-century equivalent of space probes, bringing human senses closer than ever before to astronomical bodies. Lick, and other philanthropists and amateur scientists, poured the modern equivalent of billions of dollars into observatories that delivered major scientific advances.

MacDonald also carefully traces the money that Goddard, who combined engineering brilliance with a flare for fundraising, received to finance his rocket investigations. Of the 2015-equivalent $73 million in funding Goddard spent over the course of his program, 65% came from private sources, much of it from the Guggenheim Foundation. MacDonald raises a fascinating historical counterfactual in John Jacob Astor IV, the wealthy heir who in 1894 published a book entitled A Journey in Other Worlds, apparently a meticulously researched 19th-century equivalent of The Martian and with similar cultural impact. If Astor had not died onboard the Titanic, he might have joined his wealthy peers as an important space funder.

The economic explanation for all this spending comes in two flavors, and neither one is market return. One is intrinsic motivation; some humans are attracted to the idea of exploring space and just want to do it, and people with a lot of money can make those dreams real. The other is signaling; Americans in the 19th century were eager to show their European cousins that they could contribute to the Enlightenment game of generating scientific knowledge.

It is signaling, too, that explains the Apollo experience, when massive amounts of public resources surged into the space sector. That Cold War moment created a huge value on space demonstrations because of the polarized global power structure and a lack of effective global communications networks. Putting a satellite into space or a human on the moon was an extremely powerful way for the US or the USSR to say, in essence, ‘we are a well-organized technological power that you want to befriend.’

With the end of global ideological conflict and the rise of interconnection, that kind of signaling isn’t as valuable as once it was, and NASA’s budgets are commensurately not as large. “The Apollo program should not be seen  as the classic model of American space exploration, but rather as an anomaly,” MacDonald concludes.

It may be surprising for a NASA economist to say that the space agency’s defining accomplishment was an outlier, but MacDonald says that an evolving NASA is embracing its role as an incubator of commercial space as well as an exploration agency. He is also skeptical that companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin will become serious money-makers for their founders in the near term. He sees their commercial bent as a reflection of how society is organized today.

“Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are really following their own intrinsic motivations; they want their own futures in space,” he told me. “What’s different from them to [philanthropist] Andrew Carnegie or [Smithsonian director] Charles Abbot? The best mechanism for achieving their motivations is a corporation. The Carnegie model was make all your money and donate it through a philanthropic foundation. These guys are still in their forties. They intend to be in the game of trying to advance our activity in space for the rest of their lives.”

Goddard, at least, would sympathize with their struggles. MacDonald writes about a press clipping in which the rocket pioneer laments his business prospects.

“It would cost a fortune to make a rocket to hit the moon,” Goddard mused in 1920. “But wouldn’t it be worth a fortune? The great pity is that I cannot commercialize my idea. If I could rant of a 100 percent return in forty-five days, I’d have been financed long ago.”