Yesterday, Orbital Sciences successfully completed the first test launch of its Antares rocket, developed, designed, and built in less than five years under a commercial contract with NASA to provide cargo to the International Space Station. The launch went like clockwork, perfectly, with no hitches at all, something that is quite remarkable for a new rocket on its first launch. Kudos to the engineers at Orbital Sciences for a job well done!
Besides demonstrating the skill of Orbital Science’s engineers, however, this successful launch illustrated in stark reality a fundamental fact about the culture of the United States that continues to allow it to stand out from the rest of the world, even as a large percentage of the present generation of Americans are doing their darndest to try to destroy that culture. Moreover, that fundamental cultural fact is basic to human nature, not just the United States, and if we recognize it, it will provide us all the right framework for what to do and not to do in trying to maintain human societies, both here on Earth as well as in the future in space.
In order to understand the true significance of Orbital Sciences’s success yesterday with Antares, however, we must first review the capabilities of the world’s launch industry. I am not going to list all the rockets capable of putting payloads into orbit, only those that are successfully competing for business in the open commercial market.
- Russia has one quasi-private family of rockets capable of launching payloads into orbit, the Soyuz and Proton rockets.
- India has one quasi-private family of rockets capable of launching payloads into orbit, their PSLV and GSLV rockets.
- Europe has one quasi-private family of rockets capable launching payloads into orbit, Arianespace’s Ariane 5 and Vega rockets.
- China has one government-owned family of rockets capable of launching payloads into orbit, the Long March rocket.
- Ukraine has two quasi-private families of rockets capable of launching payloads into orbit, the Zenit and Dnepr rockets.
And then there’s the United States. Not only do we now have the Antares and Pegasus rockets from Orbital Sciences, we have the Falcon 9 rocket from SpaceX, the Delta family of rockets from Boeing, and the Atlas family of rockets from Lockheed Martin. We also have two companies, Virgin Galactic and XCOR, building suborbital reusable spaceships for the space tourism market.
Does anyone but me see a pattern here?
Only the United States appears capable of robustly producing more than one company and family of rockets that can compete in the open market for launch services. Every other space-faring nation has a single family of rockets and a national company or government agency for launching payloads. (The Ukraine has two rocket families, but both are government operations, with one, Dnepr, merely leftover ICBMs from the Soviet era that have been re-purposed for commercial use.)
Nor is America’s rocket business unique in this regard. Consider our airline industry. The U.S. has dozens of companies providing commercial airline transportation. Most other countries have a single national airline.
Why is this? Why is the U.S. capable of producing multiple competing private companies, many of which are as big and as successful as the single nationalized companies financed by the budgets of entire countries?
First there is that concept of ownership. The rockets for most of these countries are essentially owned by their governments. While there might be a private company or organization building the rocket, such as Russia’s International Launch Services (ILS) and its Proton rocket, the rocket itself remains under the control and dictates of the government, not the builder. Similarly, while Arianespace might operate independently of the government that finances it, the funding still comes from the government-run European Space Agency, which continues to have the last say on any major decisions related to Arianespace’s family of rockets.
In the U.S., however, the rockets belong to private companies. This fact is especially so for the newer companies, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences. These companies built the rockets and then sold their capabilities to the government, rather than the government designing the specifications of the rocket and having it built. Moreover, they did it not because the government told them to, but because they wanted to make money on these rockets by selling them to as many customers as possible.
In America, our culture has historically and legally honored this idea of property rights. The American companies that build their rockets own those rockets. Because it is their property, they have the right to sell that property to others for profit. Granted, being rockets there are severe government restrictions on who they can sell to. Nonetheless, those restrictions limit the saleability of these rockets far less than you think.
Still, mere ownership does not explain why so many competing companies can sprout up and be successful in a single country. There is another cultural factor in America that is just as important and, when linked with ownership, produces creativity, success, and wealth in quantities that quickly outstrip every other effort worldwide. And that cultural factor can be summed up by a single word, what I like to call the forgotten word because so few Americans really understand it any more or even use it anymore.
That word is freedom. It is the cultural backbone of the United States, from which all our success has sprung.
In the case of the new commercial space industry, each of these independent companies was founded by private individuals pursuing a dream for glory and profit. This is why Elon Musk built the Falcon 9 and David Thompson built Antares. No one dictated to them what they must do. They did what they thought was best and competed in the open market with what they thought was a better idea. And since their ideas were better, they won that competition, and became profitable.
And even though freedom is not necessarily the cultural foundation of countries like Russia, China, India, and Europe, it still remains a fundamental fact of human nature. If you give people freedom, they will routinely come up with good ideas and make life better with those ideas. We would be wise to remember this when it comes time to build those first colonies on Mars and the Moon. Better to give the first settlers as much freedom as possible, rather than wrap them in a cloak of rules that will smother them badly.
Sadly, modern Americans don’t really understand or sympathize with this ideal. Too many today believe that freedom is a danger and a threat, that it is better to squelch freedom in order to control people, on the theory that this will prevent them from doing harm, either to themselves or others.
It is difficult to squelch freedom, however. No matter how hard the tyrannical among us try, they never can quite squeeze that concept back into a bottle and seal it so it can’t get out. The best that tyranny and government might do is slow it down, but that is really all tyranny can do, slow it down. At some point out it comes, in the irrepressible and inevitable exuberance of the human soul.
Right now, we are seeing a reflection of that freedom in the new emerging space industry in the United States. For forty years NASA and the federal government attempted to control the entire aerospace industry and everything that was done in space. That control is now fading. Freedom is finally expressing itself, powerfully, quickly, happily, and with vigor, with the successful launch of a rocket named Antares.
Let no one stand in its way.