Why governments can’t do it

A government official today unwittingly revealed a fundamental and unpleasant truth about how governments: operate. In an interview today, the head of India’s space agency denied that his country is in a space race with anyone.

Mr. Radhakrishnan, Secretary in the Department of Space and Chairman of Space Commission, said each country — whether it’s India, the US, Russia or China — had their own priorities.

“There is no race with anybody. If you look at anybody, they have their own direction. So, I don’t find a place for race with somebody. But I would say we are always on race with ourselves to excel in areas that we have chalked out for ourselves,” he told PTI here in an interview.

How typical. By denying the reality of the competition that India is part of Mr. Radhakrishnan illustrates for me and everyone once again the basic reason all government efforts eventually fail.

First, his statement demonstrates how governments always try to minimize risk. He is afraid of failure. To admit he is in a competition means he and his agency have to take chances in order to stay ahead. By denying the existence of the competition allows him he avoid it. India will thus accomplish less in the long run.

Second, he’d rather not work that hard, like too many other government workers. No competition, no requirement to stay up late trying to figure out how to beat the other guy. Instead, let’s work carefully and slowly, making sure nothing goes wrong.

Third, if he really believes his statement he tells us that he isn’t being honest with himself. And when you fool yourself, you shoot yourself in the foot. The only way anyone can really achieve anything is to be brutally honest so that you can figure out what you are doing wrong and fix it. Mr. Radhakrishnan will have difficulty doing this, as it is clear he is willing to make believe certain truths don’t exist.

Competition is a natural part of human nature. It is exactly why China has created its own space program. It is why India has been working for more than a decade to develop its own home-grown rockets and spacecraft.

It is why both Russia the U.S. struggled to get to the Moon in the 1960s, and why the U.S. was able to do so so quickly. Each one of these countries wanted to demonstrate that they could do these things faster and better than anyone else.

In the ten short years of the 1960s, when these governments were aggressively but peaceably competing with each other, the first humans got into space. The first humans landed on the Moon. The first human probes were sent to Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. The first big rockets were built and the first space stations were built.

When the 1960s space race was won, however, the governments of Russia and the United States decided to stop that competition. Instead, they decided to make believe the world was made of rainbows and unicorns and that everyone was all lovey-dovey with each other. They pushed the idea of cooperation.

The result has been a half century of not much achievement. In the fifty years of cooperation that followed, not much new was accomplished. No new rockets were built. No new spaceships were built. The U.S. and Russia stagnated, sending the same vehicles into space to go around and around the Earth, doing the same things, over and over again.

Now a crop of independent new private companies as well as several new countries are aggressively and peaceably competing against each other for business and the honor of achieving something new in space. The result has been the first new rocket engines in decades, the first new rockets in decades, and the first new spaceships in decades. Space exploration has been invigorated in ways that no one has seen since 1969.

India and China are part of this new competition. If either decides to make believe they aren’t they will be left in the dust by those that do. Mr. Radhakrishnan better wake up to this reality.

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4 comments

  • Cotour

    You are of course correct. When the “investment” in what ever you are undertaking essentially consists of other peoples money, (confiscated by government in this instance), and it is not dear to you the level of creativity, imagination, innovation, efficiency, incentive and excellence is thrown out the window and traded for mediocre bureaucracy and massive inefficiencies and waste. No one cares where the caring counts, incentive driven by profits resulting in success and by extension survival. My guess would be in a ratio of about three to one.

    There are different levels to this dysfunction and the Marxist / socialist model that this president and his administration adores, indulges and immerses themselves in is close to the worst. It is naïve and elitist and is disrespectful of the power of the individual and the individuals freedom.

    Sick, sick, sick. The disinfecting sunshine is beginning to be shone on this mess. And do not by default think that because I identify this president and administration as being sick that I endorse and think better of the other controlling party, I do not! The sunshine needs to be shone on them both.

    The struggle and “war” between the two is what is needed to progress, as strange as that may sound.

    • Cotour

      I want to add and clarify something related to my last post and it is an essential element to understand as it relates to the individual, capitalism and free enterprise and that essential element is FEAR OF FAILURE. The fear of failure is an essential component and driver in creating excellence, attention to detail, ensuring on time performance, and survival and it is a driving component in competition.. This is a creative fear that keeps things in proper perspective and sharply focused.

      In contrast there is no driver of excellence in these governmental schemes because there is no fear of failure. The money is free so just go get some more money that is not dear to anyone involved with it and the task at hand. No one gets fired or has a fear of being fired.

      What will happen with the ACA? Go get more money, fix something that was never tested before it was released. This is par for the course.

  • Edward

    This certainly explains why we didn’t excel in space as, in the 1960s, we had thought we would.

    In 1968, Clark and Kubrick gave us a vision of a space odyssey for the year 2001. It was probably more grandiose than was really possible, but we were dreamers back then, with real plans for space stations, moon bases, and manned missions to Mars.

    In the 1970s, manned space exploration slowed while the Space Shuttle was completed, but that was OK, because we had many unmanned probes exploring the solar system and landing on our next target: Mars. The space station was small and made of spare parts, but that would surely change as budgets blossomed again. O’Neal even had an idea for entire colonies in space. Plans for space devolved into ideas, waiting for the budgets that would fund them.

    In the 1980s, manned space stagnated (although we learned much from our many Shuttle flights), and completion of the next space station was ten years away (it stayed ten years away for two decades). Ideas for space devolved into dreams.

    In the 1990s, space enthusiasts saw that the promise of a space odyssey was false. They stopped being complacent that government would bring about anything like the odyssey and started their own commercial companies, without government contracts – and one brave soul offered $10 million that he didn’t have to form the X-Prize (a concept so powerful that NASA and DARPA now use it to encourage innovation). The dreams of the 1980s started to become ideas and plans, again.

    In the 2000s, commercial space innovation started paying off. Diamandis found a donor to fund his X-Prize and a team won it. Virgin Galactic was formed to exploit the excitement and new technology created. New commercial space companies were formed, yet some of the original ones failed. (Yes, they feared failure, but not enough to not try.)

    Now we have competitions that government relies upon to make access to space cheaper, faster, and better (a concept that government failed with, back in the 1990s). We all now wait eagerly for the new commercial manned space companies to succeed, as they will allow Bigelow and other commercial space station companies to thrive. Individuals, companies, and whole countries will be able to afford their own access to space for vacations, experimentation, or exploitation in space. Ideas are now shaping into plans, and plans to reality. Real people and their real companies are now planning and creating scaled-down versions of the space odyssey that they dreamed of all these decades. And the competition between them makes them work harder to make their products and services better and cheaper.

    To paraphrase Yakov Smirnoff, “Competition: what a concept!” It is what made America great, and it also vastly improves every country that embraces it.

    Government’s complacency and fear of failure suck.

  • George Phelps

    Hey, good morning on the 20th of November 2013,

    Cotour and Edward are ‘right on!’ I really appreciate what they have written, I couldn’t have said it better myself.

    I write a lot of stuff myself, mostly for my own enjoyment. My opinions and beliefs are right in line with these two gentlemen.

    Thank you for your very succinct and thoughtful commentaries.

    George P.
    League City, TX

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