This week saw the news that billionaire tech investor and entrepreneur Yuri Milner is giving $100 million dollars to fund a new programme that aims to develop laser-powered probes capable of travelling to other star system “within a generation”. This is just the latest example of a massive donation toward space exploration by a Silicon Valley philanthropist, and it got me thinking about the role of philanthropy in our quest to develop space travel.
It’s worth noting that Milner’s donation is by no means the first of its kind, although it may be the most eye-catching to date. Other tech titans such as PayPal and Tesla founder Elon Musk, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and Oracle founder Larry Ellison have all given money to projects which seek to further our knowledge of space in come way.
And this shouldn’t be particularly surprising. These are men (and they are primarily men) who have made their fortunes creating businesses that rely heavily on scientific research and technological development. They often come from a science background themselves, and they grew up in the aftermath of the space race and the iconic space missions of the 1970s. It is therefore natural that when it comes to philanthropy they are keen to use their money to fund causes and approaches which are similarly based in science and technology.
Furthermore, there would appear to be a gap for philanthropy to fill: government funding for space exploration has declined steadily over time following the huge investment made in the 1960s and 1970s (at its peak in 1965 and 1966, over 4% of total US federal spending was going to NASA). This means that little or no public funding has been available for large-scale, ambitious programmes and this has opened up a space for philanthropy to play a key role.
The start of what some have called “Space Race 2.0” came in 2004, when Mojave Aerospace Ventures won the $10m Ansari X prize for creating a privately financed, reusable manned suborbital spaceship. This prize was funded by a donation from Amir, Hamid and Anousheh Ansari, and lit the blue touchpaper on a new age of commercial and philanthropically-funded research and development into space travel. The winning design was supported by a donation from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and the technology was subsequently licensed by Richard Branson to create his Virgin Galactic service.
One valid question is whether this spending by billionaires on space exploration is truly philanthropic or whether it is actual a form of extremely long-term (and high risk) commercial investment. Whilst many of these guys are undoubtedly motivated by their desire to increase the sum total of human knowledge and enable us to break free from our earthbound chains, it is also true that if any of these technologies proves to be successful, they are likely to get significant financial benefit from it. So is it really philanthropy? This raises an interesting philosophical question: if an investment is sufficiently high-risk and long-term and carries a clear public benefit, at what point does it simply become philanthropy? To my mind the distinction becomes so blurred in the sorts of cases we are considering as to become meaningless.
Whether it stems from altruism or a form of extremely patient capitalism, one criticism that has been levelled at Space Race 2.0 is that the tech billionaires financing it are able to exert an undue level of influence over something that should be the preserve of democratically-elected governments. Even if their motives are entirely honourable, the reality is that the amounts of money they have to work with inevitably skew the direction of research towards particular areas. (This is more broadly a problem with philanthropic funding for scientific research, where some have expressed concerns that things like space exploration and medical research into particular high-profile diseases are drawing funding away from less sexy areas of research).
The criticism that philanthropy has unintended distorting effects is not limited to scientific research, however: it is a criticism that has levelled at big-money donations in other areas too, such as the Gates Foundation’s work in Africa and Mark Zuckerberg’s ill-fated experiment in funding public schools. The difference in the case of space exploration is that some people feel that it is not just that different approaches to addressing the problem may have distorting effects, but that the problem itself and its attractiveness to the new breed of tech donor is having a distorting effect on the rest of philanthropy. As an article in Inside Philanthropy argues about the philanthropic ambitions of Google founder Larry Page to support the foundation of a colony on Mars (which I have covered previously), “The real problem here is that philanthropic dollars are a finite resource, so how they are spent is exceedingly important…So through this lens, it starts to look less like philanthropy, and more like some rich kid’s fantasy.”
However, as I argue in my recent book Public Good by Private Means (which I am contractually obliged to mention in every blog post from now until the end of time), one of the key principles we would bear in mind when trying to understand philanthropy is that it is all about donors and their choices. This element of free choice can make philanthropy a maddeningly difficult tool to harness effectively, but it is something we need to accept rather than trying to change or suppress as to do so risks stifling all that is positive about philanthropy.
The flipside of the centrality of donor choice is that it gives rise to one of philanthropy’s most powerful attributes, which is its ability to take a long-term view. Although donor choice can sometimes make philanthropy capricious, when a donor is truly committed to a cause they can often display persistence and long-term vision that far exceeds that of politicians and public bodies beholden to short-term political cycles. A former head of the Council for Scientific Society Presidents, who had initially been highly sceptical of philanthropy but had changed his view, was quoted in the New York Times as saying “They target polio and go after it until it’s done — no one else can do that… In effect, they have the power to lead where the market and the political will are insufficient.”
And space exploration is one area where persistence and long-term vision are of fairly fundamental importance. There will inevitably be failures – some of which will be high-profile and costly. Likewise, many of the technologies are unlikely to be fully realised until after the current crop of space-focussed philanthropists are dead and gone so they will not get the personal satisfaction of seeing their ambitions realised. But despite this, an increasing number of tech billionaires are funding projects that might enable a new generation of interplanetary, or even interstellar, travel. Perhaps, then, relying on the personal motivations of philanthropists who have been brought up on sci-fi and tales of space travel, and have had their imaginations fired by the thought of making their childhood fantasies a reality, is not such a bad bet after all. Particularly if their enthusiasm can also spark interest in this area from governments and the private sector, as it is almost certainly only the combination of all three that will lead to true success.