A rocket reveals a fundamental truth about America


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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.

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14 comments

  • jwing

    Beautifully and powerfully stated. This country was founded upon the idea of individual FREEDOM and the power that is unleashed in people when the boot of government is removed fro the neck of humanity.

    No religion, no ideology is a strong as this single idea…we were born to be free and to live our lives in peace and to the fullest with our talents and passions.

  • Well said. I wish it were true. In every case, they try and often succeed in suppressing freedom. Suppressed freedom is the middle ground that most say must be. I personally will fight that suppression to my last breath and point it out to others when their vision is not quite so focused as to see it.

    Suppression of others is the normal state. It starts with parents for the safety of their children. But it continues on with all our dealings with others. It’s so natural it’s often invisible. But we need to see it to eliminate it.

    We have a chance for a fresh start in the solar system. But most of the comments I read from all sources, it doesn’t look good. Please continue to be a great advocate for freedom.

  • D. K. Williams

    Let’s hope the government doesn’t step in and quash this industry as they are doing with healthcare.

  • Coastal Ron

    I liked the beginning of the article, since I too believe that the U.S. has unique abilities far and above those of other countries, mainly centered on our legal system, education system, and the various ways we encourage entrepreneurship.

    However the last part sounded like some sort of partisan political rant. For instance, you said:

    Sadly, modern Americans don’t really understand or sympathize with this ideal.

    To me this is kind of like saying “sadly, most people don’t think about breathing…”. Why do they need to when it is part of their everyday life?

    Do you assume we should be talking about “freedom” all the time? And how many people did you survey to come to this conclusion?

    But there are some anomalies to your theory about the hardware innovation, and that would be when our government gets in the way of our innovators. For instance, you said:

    In the U.S., however, the rockets belong to private companies.

    That’s not true. Today it is, but only because the Shuttle is now gone after a 30-year run, and later this decade the government will be back in the launch business again with the Space Launch System (SLS).

    But it’s interesting to see that the reason why the SLS is being built is not because of innovation, and not because of entrepreneurs who took risks, but because of political interference. And sometimes that does trump our innovators and entrepreneurs, just like it has in other countries.

    Let’s hope it’s not a trend…

  • Edward

    Robert’s essay gives a good overview of our current State of the Space Program. Along with current rocket families, he mentions two potential (and probable) future rockets: Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip2 and XCOR’s Lynx. There are several other potential (perhaps not as probable) future rocket families that are also being developed around the world. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_private_spaceflight_companies#Crew_and_cargo_transport_vehicles

    From the past: Armadillo is still trying; Kistler, Rotary Rocket, and others went out of business or quit trying. This brings up the risk involved when exercising freedom; there is no guarantee of success, only the guarantee of opportunity.

    This is an exciting time in space exploration and exploitation. Up to now, space has been used for communications, monitoring (Earth and other plants), and exploration (mostly unmanned). Current ideas and plans look more like those from the 1960s, because two companies want to take advantage of the resources that are stored in asteroids, and at least one company wants to start Martian or Lunar colonies.

    What were plans in the 1960s (e.g. space stations, moon bases, NERVA rockets, and aerospike engines) became ideas in the 1970s (e.g. colonies at L5), became dreams in the 1980s (e.g. a “dual-keel” space station named Freedom).

    After a several-decade “drought” in plans for expanding into space, as seen in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey,” in the 1990s a few people grew tired of missing the promised space odyssey and decided to bypass the unproductive NASA and started their own space companies.

    This relates to Robert’s final point. At the risk of sounding like some sort of partisan political rant: if you let the government do everything, all you will get is what the government wants; if you have a free people doing most of it, you will get mostly what the people want. Put another way: people who have nothing to aspire to will aspire to nothing.

    We are now watching private companies using their freedoms and taking their own risks in order to bring about the promised space odyssey that we have expected for the past four or so decades.

  • Elon Musk on why he emigrated to America: “Because it’s where great things are still possible.”

  • wodun

    “However the last part sounded like some sort of partisan political rant. For instance, you said:

    “Sadly, modern Americans don’t really understand or sympathize with this ideal.””

    It may sound partisan but it is true and it is also a bi-partisan problem when it comes to our space program.

  • wodun

    Orbital also has the Minotaur series.

    Considering the Antares uses 2 engines and the Russians wanted to use 20 in their vehicle, maybe Orbital can scale up their launchers to serve more customers.

    Something else to consider, most of the current New Space companies are using old NASA technology, or Russian in some cases, in some form or another. Technology from programs that NASA cancelled. There is something about the nature of NASA that prevents them from utilizing everything they work on. Also, NASA’s success over the decades is due in large part to the partners in the business sector.

    NASA can be a powerful catalyst for the growth of the space industry but not if they hoard knowledge, technologies, and access.

    There is a public/private partnership and there always will be. IMO, as enthusiastic advocates, we should be pushing for arrangements that allow for both parties to benefit.

    I couldn’t agree more about companies retaining the rights to their work so they can market it to customers other than NASA. It looks to be working out well for SpaceX and hopefully it will for other companies as well.

  • I did not mention the Minotaur because it appears Orbital does not have much enthusiasm for it. Moreover, they haven’t gotten a lot of sales using it.

    As for the use of old technology, either from NASA or the Russians, note that SpaceX has not done this. They might have used the knowledge gained from past NASA engineering, but they built their Merlin engine and Falcon rocket from scratch.

  • Jeff

    Heilein time is coming.

    Feels a lot like Rocket Ship Galileo and Have Space Suit Will Travel these days :)

    I’m loving it.

    Great essay !

  • wodun

    My point was only that a public private partnership exists. Someone will always be able to point to some helping hand SpaceX got from the government and the other way around. IIRC, SpaceX used some NASA heritage on their heat shield? And Bigelow is using NASA derived products. I wonder to what extent SpaceX or Blue Origin used work done at NASA for their VTVLs?

    It is great to see these companies improve upon the work done at NASA and actually make a finished product, all while spending less money.

    In the future, hopefully we will see NASA share more and use a COTS like approach to develop other services, like a space tug.

  • The difference here is that this really is a private-public partnership, whereby the private part retains ownership and control of its product. In the past it was a public run operation, in which the public part (NASA) ordered the private part around. The products were essentially for NASA’s use only, with little value in the open market.

    The difference is crucial, as the old way allowed for little freedom, while the new way releases the private companies from the restrictions of the public yoke.

  • wodun

    Totally agree. This is what I have been spouting in comment sections for some time now. Allowing companies to have other customers than NASA and deviating from standard federal procurement policies are some some small tweaks that have had enormous benefits. I want to see this replicated as much as possible to develop the space based industry. This is part of NASA’s charter just like Earth sciences and should receive equal consideration.

    NASA also does a lot of R&D and they will never be able to capitalize on everything they work on. It is important that there is a mechanism to allow the public access to this R&D. We should be encouraging companies, like Bigelow, taking technologies NASA cast aside and doing great things with them.

  • arthur bellkins

    wow mazed to hear all this, isn’t it true that if it wasn’t for the illuminate finding pyramids on the moon wed be living in space now. down with the NWO you have taught us well.

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