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Opinion | The Marvel of the Private Space Industry

1 week ago 15

Rarely has stunning human achievement been greeted with as much churlishness as when Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos managed to fly or launch themselves into space.

There may be all sorts of legitimate grounds for criticizing billionaires, but attaining suborbital flight under their own power doesn’t seem one of them.

Yet Branson and Bezos were mocked and criticized for not paying enough taxes, for being wasteful, for ignoring problems here on Earth, for engaging in a grotesque spectacle to boost their own egos, among other alleged offenses.

Even by the standards of our juvenile and mean-spirited Twitter-driven public discourse, all of this is exceptionally stupid. It speaks of a contempt for human endeavor as such, and a casual disregard for a new model of space exploration that holds enormous promise for the United States.

First of all, it’s not unusual for entrepreneurial pioneers to be obsessively consumed by the development of a new technology, and to want to partake of the glory of its rollout.

One can only imagine what would have been said about prior instances of this phenomenon if today’s standards applied.

Couldn’t Samuel Morse have been less of a showboat about it when he sent his famous message on the new telegraph line between Washington and Baltimore, “What hath God wrought?”

Wasn’t it incredibly selfish of Henry Ford to build racing cars early in his career, when winning automobile races does nothing to improve the overall human condition?

Why did the Wright brothers waste their time flying a plane at Kitty Hawk, when they could have focused on the abuses in the turn-of-the-century meatpacking industry instead?

Another space entrepreneur, Elon Musk, said none too modestly earlier this year that he wants to boost multiplanetary life and extend consciousness to the stars.

Bernie Sanders’ reply was basically: Yeah, but what about the proletariat?

The Vermont senator tweeted, “Space travel is an exciting idea, but right now we need to focus on Earth and create a progressive tax system so that children don’t go hungry, people are not homeless and all Americans have healthcare.“

For better or worse, it’s not an either/or proposition. Nothing Musk is doing—you know, revolutionizing the auto and space industries, in between other endeavors—is keeping Sanders from, say, passing his $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill. In fact, Musk’s company SpaceX could be expropriated entirely and, at a valuation of roughly $75 billion, it’d pay for only 2 percent of the budget bill.

As for government space flight, it’s not as though NASA has been knocking anyone’s socks off. The space shuttle was a flawed program, but since the last flight in 2011, the agency hasn’t been able to send people into space on its own, which would seem a threshold test of the space agency of the world’s leading nation.

It has been hobbled by the political imperatives of a Congress that considers almost every government initiative a jobs program and by its flawed contracting model, as well as other inevitable government inefficiencies.

It is private actors who have stepped into the gap, especially Musk. He is now routinely launching satellites into orbit for NASA and the military. He has flown astronauts to the international space station. These aren’t vanity projects, but essential contributions to our existing publicly sanctioned space program.

Musk’s rockets are significantly cheaper than those of NASA. This is extraordinary. After the heroic period of innovation with the onset U.S.-Soviet space race after Sputnik, the cost of space launches stayed stubbornly flat after 1970, as if it was a law of nature that it couldn’t go lower. Then, along came Musk.

Lower cost is key, not just because it saves the taxpayers dollars. Lower cost means more satellite launches. More satellite launches mean cheaper satellites, because of efficiencies of scale in production. When the whole process is less expensive, it creates an incentive for more technological innovation—engineers don’t have to be as cautious anymore.

In true entrepreneurial fashion, Musk is working to make his own technology obsolete. He wants to supplant the partially reusable Falcon 9 rocket with the fully reusable Starship rocket. He’s not satisfied, in what was the old aerospace model, to keep taking the government’s money for his current technology until the government directs him to develop new technology.

The private space industry is going to open up vistas that can’t currently be predicted in an enormously consequential area. Consider just one dimension. The U.S. and China are in a new race for dominance in space, which has enormous national security implications. Satellites are necessary to modern life, and contemporary militaries can’t operate without them. In any major conflict that involves rival militaries targeting of satellites, the power that has a technological edge and the ability to launch new satellites quickly and easily will have an edge. If Musk, Bezos or someone else helps provide that edge, they are making a contribution to the national interest that can’t be matched by the average Senate committee chair, let alone the average caviling commentator on Twitter.

The typical critiques of capitalists over the past decade have been that they only make incomprehensibly complicated bets on the markets, or that they take over existing companies in pointless exercises in “vulture capitalism,” or that they outsource our jobs. But here are, in the case of Musk and Bezos, capitalists making very tangible products, with easily understandable—indeed, inspiring—goals, in conjunction with the U.S. government.

What’s not to like?

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