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American freedom sets a new yearly record for rocketry

Liberty enlightens the world
Liberty has now also enlightened the exploration of space

Capitalism in space: In 1966, more than a half century ago, the United States government was in a desperate space race to catch up with the communist Soviet Union, which for the previous decade had been first in almost every major achievement in space, from launching the first orbital satellite, the first manned mission, the first two- and three- manned missions, and the first spacewalk.

In 1966, the NASA and the U.S. military successfully launched 70 times in their effort to catch up, a number that has remained the record for more that five decades as the most American launches in a single year.

All but one of those seventy launches were either for NASA or the military, paid for and built not for profit but for achieving the political ends of the federal government. Many of those seventy launches were also short duration technology test satellites, whose purpose once achieved ended those programs.

By the end of the 1960s, this aggressive effort had paid off, with the U.S. being the first to land humans on the Moon while matching or exceeding the Soviets in almost every major technical space challenge. The need for such an aggressive government launch program vanished.

Thus, for the next half century, the United States rarely exceeded thirty launches in a single year. This low number was further reduced by the decision in the 1970s by the federal government to shut down the entire private launch industry and require all American manned and satellite payloads to be launched on NASA’s space shuttle.

Come 2011 and the retirement of the space shuttle, all this finally changed. The federal government began a slow and painful transition in the next decade from building and launching its own rockets to buying that service from the private sector. It took awhile, but that transition finally allowed the rebirth of a new American private launch industry, led by SpaceX and its Falcon 9 rocket.

Tonight, that SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket completed the 71st launch in 2022, breaking that 1966 record by placing in orbit a commercial communications satellite. And it did it with almost two months left in the year, guaranteeing that the record has not only be broken, it will be shattered.

This achievement, while led by SpaceX, was not done by SpaceX alone. Nor was it done by the government. Six other private American companies have also completed launches this year. And another three hope to complete their first orbital launch before the end of the year. By next year the U.S. should have about ten competing rocket companies, all with a wide range of capabilities and designs that will make it possible for Americans, the American government, and many others to fulfill almost any space project they can conceive and finance.

Nor is this American resurgence in space limited to private rocket companies. At the moment at least five different companies are building private space stations, all of which hope to be operating and making money by the end of the decade. In addition, a slew of other private companies are designing planetary landers and orbiters to provide this service at lower cost to scientists.

This renaissance occurred because Americans stopped asking the federal government to run a space “program” that controlled everything, but to break those shackles and allow the free competition of private companies to create a chaotic and competitive industry. The result was totally American in nature, and it has worked marvelously.

Let liberty ring throughout the land
Let liberty ring forever!

Freedom once again has made great things happen. And we only need to let it sing for those great things to be quickly surpassed, in ways we right now cannot even possibly imagine.

Meanwhile, tonight’s launch was the seventh flight for the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket, landing successfully on a drone ship in the Atlantic. Moreover, the rocket’s two fairing halves flew their fourth and sixth flights, respectively.

The leaders in the 2022 launch race:

51 SpaceX
47 China
19 Russia
8 Rocket Lab

American private enterprise now leads China 71 to 47, though it trails the rest of the world combined 75 to 71.

Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

The ebook is available everywhere for $5.99 (before discount) at amazon, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit. If you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and the author gets a bigger cut much sooner.

The audiobook is also available at all these vendors, and is also free with a 30-day trial membership to Audible.

"Not simply about one mission, [Genesis] is also the history of America's quest for the moon... Zimmerman has done a masterful job of tying disparate events together into a solid account of one of America's greatest human triumphs."--San Antonio Express-News


  • wayne

    Hell on Wheels, Se:1 Ep:1 (2011)
    “Thomas Durant’s Speech”

    “One hundred years hence, when this railroad spans the continent, and America rises to be the greatest power the world has seen, I will be remembered as a caitiff, a malefactor, who only operated out of greed for personal gain. All true, all true, but remember this: without me and men like me, your glorious railroad would never be built.”

  • TL

    “This low number was further reduced by the decision in the 1970s by the federal government to shut down the entire private launch industry and require all American manned and satellite payloads to be launched on NASA’s space shuttle.”

    I’ve read this before, but I’ve never read anything going into detail of the why or how of it. Was it a congressional act? An admin decision? Or just NASA putting the industry on notice that anybody who used some other US service would not be allowed to use NASA services? Can anybody point me in a research direction?

  • TL: An excellent question of which I really should do some research. There is no doubt that the federal government demanded that all launches take place on the shuttle once it began flying in 1981, and that rule was followed until 1986, when the Challenger shuttle was destroyed at launch. Reagan then ruled that no more commercial launches would be allowed on the shuttle, but it still took a quarter century for the American launch industry to recover from the destruction caused by that earlier rule.

    How the satellite industry was lassoed into following that rule is a great question. I suspect it was simply as you say, “NASA putting the industry on notice that anybody who used some other US service would not be allowed to use NASA services.” This was also likely done very cleverly, kind of like gangsters saying, “Nice business you got here. It really would be a shame if something happened to it.”

    Thus, the launch industry had no customers, because satellite companies couldn’t risk antagonizing the government.

  • Edward

    TL asked: “Can anybody point me in a research direction?

    I don’t have research references, but my recollection is a little different than Robert’s. As I recall, the requirement to only launch on the Shuttle came in the very early 1980s, after the Shuttle was declared operational, rather than coming in the 1970s. In the very early 1980s, Robert Truax had attempted to make a privately funded commercial rocket but was stifled by this requirement to use the Shuttle, because investors dried up when the rocket was essentially forbidden by this requirement.

    Commercial communication satellites made in the U.S. started to be launched on Ariane rockets. The requirement that the Shuttle launch U.S. satellites did not preclude the use of Ariane, mainly because the Shuttle could not launch often enough to satisfy all the U.S. traffic. This Shuttle requirement did, however, almost destroy the market for other U.S. made launch vehicles, and this market didn’t recover until the 1990s, at the earliest. The relaxation of the Shuttle requirement allowed Orbital Sciences to join the launch market with their Pegasus rocket, launched from an L-1011.

    Robert’s essay mentions the freedom to compete, and that the competition has resulted in a variety of launch vehicles with a wide range of capabilities. However, he failed to note that this competition has also resulted in a dramatic decrease in the cost to the customers for launching into orbit. This decrease was noted, a decade ago, as a disruptive factor in the launch market. The result of the reduced price tag for many launches has allowed the variety of additional customers to be able to afford to start up their space businesses.

    The ability for five commercial space stations comes from the commercialization of manned space travel. Government was not willing to do much for the commercial industry, so with the commercialization of space, we are getting more of what we had expected NASA to do with its Space Shuttle. We are beginning to realize (make real) the dreams of the 1950s.

    It took long enough. And it took liberty, the freedom from government restrictions.

  • Edward is right, I should have mentioned in this essay, as I have in almost every other essay on this subject of freedom and competition in space, how the competition causes the prices to drop, which automatically widens the customer base which then increases the profit margins for the launch companies, which results in more launch companies. And so forth and so on, ad infinitum.

  • SpaceX noted that the recovery of the latest Falcon Heavy boosters marked the 150th and 151st time an orbital-class booster had been landed. Pretty sure that’s a record, too.

  • Ian C.

    Meanwhile in Europe…

    “The EU’s galactically bad space programme” (The Spectator)

    And my beloved country’s space policy is centered around climate change and gender justice. Nah, America is the better place. Simple as.

  • TL

    Thanks for the responses. Always impressive what industry can do once government gets out of the way

  • Edward

    I should have mentioned that it is an excellent essay. It is too short for the topic, which could probably fill a book, if you are so inclined. Government (through NASA) stifled space expansion, exploitation, and exploration by being an underfunded monopoly. It stifled space commercialization by being a monopsony. It stifled the dreams of the 1950s by having different priorities, even though many of NASA’s employees expected NASA to fulfill those dreams, as the rest of us had also expected. We can only ponder the amount of space-based manufacturing we could have had by now if the Shuttle had lived up to its promise.

    Telecommunications through satellites was the most successful commercial industry, producing profits for virtually every company, until Iridium and Globalstar, both of which failed because they were in competition with cell phones, which had become extremely inexpensive, a benefit of competition.

    Ikonos was another successful company, in 1999, to begin Earth observation, previously monopolized by governments and their intelligence agencies. At first, there were arguments that commercial observation companies should not be allowed to observe certain classified locations. Once this commercial endeavor broke through the government monopoly, others followed, especially the completion of the Ansari X-Prize, which stirred our imaginations once again.

    Now that we are commercializing space, we are discovering which dreams of the 1950s are economically practical. We are also imagining some new dreams of our own. But the best part is that WE get to do them — at our own expense, not government’s — and we no longer depend upon a reluctant government to provide satisfaction for us. As we learned, government does not do that for us very well. Despite thinking that we control government through the election process, government sticks to its own priorities, no matter how many times we tell them what we want.

    Commercialism is now producing a rocket that should not only live up to the promise of the Space Shuttle but should surpass it. We can only ponder the amount of space-based manufacturing we will finally have four decades from now. Unfortunately, SpaceX seems to delay its first launch each time the SLS is delayed, perhaps in an attempt to not embarrass NASA. Intentionally or not, government seems to continue to stifle commercial space to some degree.

  • Edward wrote, “Telecommunications through satellites was the most successful commercial industry, producing profits for virtually every company, until Iridium and Globalstar, both of which failed because they were in competition with cell phones, which had become extremely inexpensive, a benefit of competition.”

    Actually, the reason cell phones won out in the 1990s is that the government put so many regulatory hurdles in front of the orbital constellations that it slowed their development by almost a decade, a delay that the cellphone industry took full advantage of. Moreover, this was at a time when there was no cheap launch option (caused by the government’s actions that destroyed the U.S. launch industry), which raised the cost as well.

    The result was that by the time Iridium and Globalstar were finally launching, they were no longer competitive with cellphones.

  • Edward

    I did not know that the industry was interested in the direct phone service from space so early on.

    The launch price problem existed even as they were launching, which is why they were so eager to launch on Russian and Chinese launch vehicles. The Space Shuttle and Ariane did not launch to some of the orbits that they wanted, and the U.S. launch vehicles that survived the Space Shuttle shakeout were very expensive. Even with the launch vehicles that they used, the business model was a bit shaky, and with the dramatic reduction in the cost of cell phones, bankruptcy for both Iridium and Globalstar was likely. I have heard scenarios in which Iridium could have survived, but they depended upon non-economical uses of the service.

    Iridium was reincarnated when it sold for about a penny on the dollar. This allowed the company to operate without losing too much money.

    The symptom most easily seen for the failure is the dramatic decrease in prices for cell phones, so I have always used that as the reason those two companies failed. Iridium II has had the advantage of lower launch costs for its current generation of satellites, but it has survived so long mostly due to governmental use of its services.

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