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Pioneers, and the rich, who funded space

Pioneers, and the rich, who funded space

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Private funding of space travel will become common, a NASA economist predicts.

Rich men like SpaceX CEO Elon Musk who made their fortunes in technology and are now funding space exploration should not be considered exceptional, writes Alexander MacDonald, a TED Fellow and the first research economist at NASA Ames.

It's government funding of space travel that's the exception. NASA and the National Science Foundation weren't founded until after World War II, while Musk and others, including Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos -- dubbed "thrillionaires" a few years ago by the New York Times -- are part of a long tradition of self-made men who can afford to indulge their childhood fantasies or a sense of civic duty.

In the paper below, MacDonald lists privately funded U.S. space projects going back to 1831 and calculates how much was spent on them based on the 2008 Gross Domestic Product. (Take an expenditure in a given year, divide it by the GDP for that year, and multiply it by the 2008 GDP to get a ratio).

Projects of $100 million to $1 billion were pretty common, he notes -- James Lick, for instance, who funded the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton (overlooking San Jose) in 1872, spent $700,000, or 17.5 percent of his estate. That's the equivalent of $1.22 billion in 2008 dollars.

MacDonald figures that private funding of space travel will continue, and not just as a way to make money. The lure of space is hard to resist, especially when you can afford it. However -- and this is what I think -- scientific research can't be allowed to suffer if the government lets millionaires and billionaires take over its role as chief funder of space travel.

Get MacDonald's paper here or below. The picture above is of Robert Goddard, an American physicist and professor who built the first liquid-fueled rocket, which he launched in 1926. He couldn't afford to continue his research and was eventually backed by the Smithsonian, which is in turn funded partially by the government.

[UPDATE: Here's a letter sent to the House Committee on Science and Technology this week by Nobel laureates, former NASA astronauts and officials, and science educators. They say NASA aeronautics, commercial space flight, robotic precursor missions and university and student research are still seriously underfunded, even under President Obama's new plan for the space agency. They say more funding is needed to reverse "years of neglect."]

Brief History Space Exploration

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Deborah Gage

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Deborah Gage has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, Minnesota Public Radio, Baseline and various magazines and newspapers. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure