Americans tend to associate great 20th-century achievements in science and technology with the government. It’s not hard to see why. The astronauts who planted an American flag on the Sea of Tranquility drew their paychecks from Uncle Sam. So too did the scientists who unleashed the power of the atom. It’s not wrong to associate such great achievements with taxpayer money. But that’s an incomplete story—and, given projected budget deficits, it may soon seem rather dated.
Twenty years ago there was no such thing as a private or nonprofit space industry. Anyone hoping to slip the surly bonds of earth needed to talk to federal bureaucrats. All of that changed in 1996, with the announcement of the Ansari X Prize. It famously offered a $10 million award to the first non-governmental group to build a manned spacecraft that could achieve suborbital flight twice within two weeks. More than two dozen competitors spent over $100 million in pursuit of the prize. In 2004, with backing from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, SpaceShipOne took the honor.
It’s an investment that continues to pay dividends. In late May, for example, history was made when SpaceX became the first privately owned company to deliver a cargo payload to the International Space Station. Elon Musk founded the space transport company in 2002, an outgrowth of the excitement over the Ansari X Prize. (The co-founder of PayPal and Tesla Motors, Musk focuses his philanthropy on renewable energy and, unsurprisingly, space exploration.) With NASA’s budget likely to be constrained, the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft may be a crucial part of U.S. spaceflight over the next generation.
The X Prize Foundation continues its efforts to catalyze the private exploration of space. It has partnered with Shell to develop the Exploration Prize Group, a series of competitions rewarding technological innovations in areas that include asteroid deflection and “space jumping,” a kind of parachute that would return an astronaut to earth in case of emergency. The Google-sponsored Lunar X Prize, meanwhile, is offering a $30 million reward for the first non-governmental team to develop a functioning moon rover by 2015.
Other philanthropic efforts to improve understanding of our galaxy include the newly launched B612 Foundation. Led by a team of former astronauts, it is working to build, launch, and operate the first privately funded deep space mission—a space telescope to be placed in orbit around the sun to map asteroid orbits and chart the dangers of collision with the earth. Asteroid impacts are low-probability, high-devastation disasters that could take millions of lives. Fewer than six years after launch, the B612 Foundation expects to discover and track over 500,000 asteroids that could potentially endanger the earth.
Other donors, meanwhile, are digging deep into the earth to gain a clearer picture of the universe. Medical entrepreneur and large-scale philanthropist Denny Sanford has contributed some $70 million toward building a physics research center in his native South Dakota—nearly a mile underground in a former gold mine, where the overlaying earth shields experiments from cosmic rays. The Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF), which opened this summer, houses an advanced neutrino detector as part of an effort to study dark matter. It is believed that neutrinos may account for at least some of the dark matter apparent in space imagery, and a better understanding is vital to completing our model of the universe.
Space exploration and research into subatomic particles were once considered such expensive, large-scale enterprises as to be beyond the scope of any groups other than national governments. No longer. Even in Big Science, donors have become integral to recent advances, with the prospect of even more involvement in the future.
Mithun Selvaratnam is an intern at Philanthropy.