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.



  • joe

    Robert, I think the words are American Exceptionalism, something that Vladymer Putin says we don’t have along with many liberal americans in this country who are leaches among us. That Nasa is unable to build a launch vehicle that could ferry our astronauts to the space station in budget and time frames gives us some reason to doubt this exceptionalism, but none the less we citizens are capable of a lot more with the freedoms our constitution gives us than any other nations citizens in the world! great post!

  • I don’t like the term “American Exceptionalism” as it implies there is something special about Americans themselves. What has been exceptional is that we embraced freedom and private property from our founding. However, there is no guarantee that we will embrace these ideas in the future. It is my impression that in general American culture is increasingly rejecting them.

    I prefer to focus on the ideas themselves, since I believe all countries and cultures can adopt them, to their own benefit.

  • joe

    Its not about bigotry or race, its about the freedoms we enjoyed with our constitution, the exceptionalism comes from the freedoms our countrys founders wrote into our constitution! Ingenuity is allowed to breath in the united states and an ownership society has more reason to achieve than a closed society, citizens of various countrys the world over have proven they are smart and full of intelligence, its their governance that holds them back!

  • Jeffrey D

    Hear! Hear! That’s the best short argument I’ve seen to define the term “American Exceptionalism”. As you say, it’s not about individual people being better. It’s about allowing the best and the brightest to flourish – whether they are natural born or immigrants.

  • Your post got me thinking, and I formulated a comment that was rather long so I made it a post on my blog instead.


  • Bob,

    Interesting post. You make one false assumption, however, at least when it comes to my thinking. First your quote:

    “I think [the libertarian] attitude leads to a false choice. They think we can’t protect endangered species because that restricts property rights and freedom. We can’t prevent unfair business practices because that restricts property rights and freedom. We can’t have a society that values individual accomplishment but also protects individuals from being taken advantage of.”

    You assume you know where I stand on issues of endangered species and unfair business practices, that I am willing to allow species to go extinct and con man to run wild, in the name of freedom and property rights. You also assume I am a libertarian. Your assumptions are wrong.

    I am not a libertarian, at least as I understand the term. I strongly believe in the need for government, but not as we practice it today in the United States. These issues (ecology and business practices) are generally handled better on the local or state level. If they are handled on the federal level, they must be handled with great reluctance and care, within the framework of our Constitution. See this comment thread for my thoughts on the federalist system that our founders designed for us that we have generally abandoned, to our general distress.

  • Edward

    ” Does anyone but me see a pattern here?”

    Robert, I have been telling people about that pattern for years.

    The freedom that you speak of is the foundation of American exceptionalism, which Vladymer Putin recently – and very publicly – declared to be dangerous. The success of the SpaceX Falcon 9 and the Orbital Sciences Antares are demonstrations of that freedom and that exceptionalism, as are the founding of the X-prize and the winning of the X-prize.

    Some people think that American exceptionalism is arrogance – the thinking that we are better than everyone else – which would be dangerous. They are wrong. America is made up of people who came here from everywhere else. We ARE everyone else. How can those people be so wrong about the obvious. The only thing that distinguishes us from everyone else is the freedom that allows us to excel and be exceptional.

    Elon Musk of SpaceX came from South Africa, reportedly he said that it was because “this is where great things are possible.” Musk is part of that everyone else, but he came here for the freedom to excel.

    The Statue of Liberty asks the world to send us their downtrodden. In America, even the downtrodden – not just Musk – have the freedom to excel.

    I am reminded of a 1976 wine tasting competition held in France, during which Napa Valley wines won against the best wines in the world: French wines. Napa Valley had the freedom to experiment with their wines – and did so because it was possible – but the French government had forbidden their wineries from changing their wines, lest they become less than the best. The French wineries were not free. That regulation backfired on the French.

    American freedom (or exceptionalism) allowed us to go from – literally – a backwoods community in 1620 to the most powerful nation on Earth by 1920. It seems to me that excelling in a mere three centuries is exceptional. No other nation on Earth has done so.

    Alexis De Tocqueville visited the US in the 1830s, recognized American exceptionalism (but didn’t call it that), and told Europe that they needed to be more like the US. They did, and as India and China are starting to do now, they have excelled, too. That is why when people around the world are jealous of the successful, they are jealous of Europe and the US. If only they, like India and China, would emulate such freedoms.

    Hooray for SpaceX and Orbital Sciences (and Virgin Galactic and XCore), who have broken free of the usual government bonds that regulate how to do things. They have done great things. Because it is possible.

  • Robert,

    Yes, I was reading things into what you said. We may agree more than I thought. I think libertarians have some good ideas, but I can’t buy their whole package.

    There is a meme in society that if we only had the perfect set of rules we could prevent anything bad from happening so if something bad happens the proper response is to make more rules.

  • Jim Grabarits


    Just wanted to say keep up the good work!

    I first heard you on the John Bachelor show some time ago and checked out your website. Very good job finding the articles worth reading about, especially the space-related ones.

    I also like the way you put things in perspective, like this entry about national programs and all the American ones. It’s refreshing to read that.


    Jim Grabarits

  • Robert Clark

    Well written as usual. At this point the savings by the commercial space approach will become too apparent to ignore. Then it will finally also dawn on people it should be applied to BEO flights.

    Bob Clark

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