America’s modern rocket industry illustrates the power of freedom


Chronological Encyclopedia of Discoveries in Space cover

After being in print for twenty years, the Chronological Encyclopedia of Discoveries in Space, covering everything that was learned on every single space mission in the 20th century, has finally gone out of print.

 
I presently have my last four hardback copies available for sale. The book sold new for about $90. To get your own autographed copy of this now rare collector's item, please send a $120 check (which includes shipping) payable to Robert Zimmerman to


Behind The Black, c/o Robert Zimmerman
P.O.Box 1262
Cortaro, AZ 85652


"Useful to space buffs and generalists, comprehensive but readable, Bob Zimmerman's Encyclopedia belongs front and center on everyone's bookshelf." -- Mike Collins, Apollo 11 astronaut

 

"The Chronological Encylopedia of Discoveries in Space is no passionless compendium of information. Robert Zimmerman's fact-filled reports, which cover virtually every spacecraft or probe to have ventured into the heavens, relate the scientific and technical adventure of space exploration enthusiastically and with authority." -- American Scientist

SpaceX's first Starship prototype
SpaceX’s first Starship prototype

Capitalism in space: Today’s launch by SpaceX of another sixty Starlink satellites in its planned constellation of thousands of satellites, designed to provide worldwide internet access, was significant in a way that is actually not obvious at first glance. To understand its significance, it is necessary to look at the launch in a wider context.

Below is the list of launches that have so far occurred in 2020. I keep track of this, and post an update here on Behind the Black after each new launch:

3 China
3 SpaceX
1 Arianespace (Europe)
1 Rocket Lab
1 Russia
1 Japan
1 ULA
1 Northrop Grumman

Notice anything? While the launches of every other nation in the world are centralized under one rocket company or agency, the United States has many different and independent companies competing for this business. Right now the U.S. has four different companies on this list, with one (SpaceX) now tied after today’s launch with China for the overall lead, and three (Rocket Lab, ULA, and Northrop Grumman) tied with Europe, Russia, and Japan for second place.

Only in America can you have individual private rocket companies competing head-to-head with whole nations, and beating them. (Some might argue that China’s rocket industry is also made up of competing companies, but that is a lie. While those companies might function somewhat independently, they are all under the strict supervision of the central communist government. They are not functioning as free and privately-owned companies.)

Nor is this pattern seen only in the launch market. Among airline companies it has been the norm since the beginnings of cheap passenger flight after World War II. While most other nations have a single national airline (British Airways, Aeroflot, El Al, Air Canada, Korean Air, Saudi Arabian Airlines, to name a few), the U.S. has a plethora of competing independent companies, with many flying many more passengers than these national airlines, sometimes even to their own countries.

How is this possible? Why does the U.S. so often dominate so many industries in this way?

The answer — simple though unfortunately often forgotten even in the U.S. — is freedom. We have structured our entire culture and legal system around the idea of protecting the property rights and private ownership of individuals and their companies, so that they then have the freedom to follow their dreams and fantasies, wherever those dreams and fantasies might take them.

Unlike other nations, our culture does not first ask its government to organize a business to serve the citizens. Instead, we expect private citizens and companies to do it, and to do it competitively. All are free to form their own operation, aimed at making profit. And if some don’t do a good job at it, as was the case in the launch industry when Boeing and Lockheed Martin merged to form ULA in 2005, our culture’s reliance on freedom expects new companies and individuals, in this case SpaceX and Elon Musk, to step forward and offer better services. This free competition, a fundamental aspect of human nature, leads to better products at lower cost, and forces the older companies to either shape up, or die.

The focus is on freedom, profit, and competitive success, not power and government control.

I have noted this pattern previously when Orbital Sciences (now part of Northrop Grumman) completed its first launch of its Antares rocket in 2013. As I said then,

[E]ven 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 there are people now in the United States who wish to squelch this fundamental fact of human nature. They instead fantasize a nation where all good things come from on-high from the government.

History however has shown us repeatedly how foolish and absurd this fantasy is. The government can’t do it. Worse, disasters like the Soviet Union, Venezuela, North Korea, and East Germany occurred not only because the government tried to do everything, but because the people in charge squelched any alternative ideas. The result in every case was bankruptcy and poverty, sometimes even descending into famine and violence.

Interestingly, it was the Soviet Union’s own space industry in the 1980s that offered that communist government its first glimpse into the wealth that freedom and capitalism can produce. Long before the fall of the Soviet Union that government tried capitalism in space, selling tickets to its space station Mir to private ventures. Soon they realized that there was a lot of money to be earned from their space industry. They had reliable and low cost rockets that could put satellites into orbit cheaply. Marketing that capability to the world, they found they could make a lot of money.

When the Soviet Union fell, it was their space program that led the way towards capitalism. By the end of the 1990s Russia dominated that market. If they had allowed other companies in Russia to form and compete further for that business, they would have seen an economic renaissance that would have made their country prosperous and wealthy.

They did not. The top-down authoritarian culture of Russia took over, and instead their government centralized their space industry into a single government-run corporation. The result today is that they have lost a significant portion of their launch market share, and they have failed entirely in spreading the wealth earned in the past few decades from that industry to the rest of their society.

Like Russia’s space industry in the 1980s, the American aerospace effort has twice been a precursor of our future. First, NASA’s 1960s centralized space program that won the space race to the Moon convinced the nation that the Soviet top-down model was best, and for fifty years we attempted in space to repeat that success, using the government to organize the entire space program. For a half century we thus accomplished little, and wasted a lot of money doing it.

That single success in the 1960s of a centralized space program also convinced us into attempting to copy that Soviet model in numerous other ways. For the past half century we have repeatedly tried to use our government to solve numerous other social problems, in the vain hope that government could eliminate those problems. Instead, like the collapses in those centralized communist nations, we have seen debt and repeated governmental failures that in almost every case made things worse.

Now, our launch industry is once again giving us a glimpse of the future. Instead of the government looking to NASA to build its rockets and spacecraft, it is instead demanding that NASA look to private American companies, such as SpaceX, Rocket Lab, and Northrop Grumman, to provide those products. As a result, the government is getting what it needs in a third the time and at a tenth the cost. The American launch industry meanwhile is booming, with the possibility in the coming few years that it will entirely dominate the exploration of space while bringing enormous profits and wealth to the American people. And it could very well be doing it, as SpaceX is trying to do in building its Starship reusable rocket shown above, without any government money at all. Profits and individual achievement will fuel it all.

That lesson in space has the hope of convincing new generations of Americans to return to our roots in all our efforts. Hopefully future generations will see what freedom has wrought in space, and decide to go back to the traditions of freedom and decentralized competition and private enterprise that made the United States in the 20th century the most prosperous nation ever in the entire history of humanity.

They will stop asking the government to be our savior, and instead demand that it get out of the way, that it be reduced in size and power so that the freedom of the individual can once again rein supreme.

Share

9 comments

  • Edward_2

    I can’t get over how familiar SpaceX rockets look like. They literally look like rockets from 1950’s SciFi movies and Twilight Zone episodes – and land the same too.

    Life is imitating Art. CRAZY!

  • BillB

    Yeah, but! Seems that the Democrat run house wants to rein freedom back in. H.R. 5666 is trying to get back to that top down model for NASA.

  • Chris Lopes

    @Edward_2
    Musk is a Heinlein fan (right down to becoming a real life D. D. Harriman), so it’s no surprise he has a ship that looks like it could be flown by Matt Dodson.

  • sippin_bourbon

    At some point, SpaceX, and other companies, will turn a decent profit And people on one side of the aisle in Congress ( and possibly the White House) will feel (yes feel not think) that this is not fair, and will propose a new set of tax laws.

    And the impact will be immediate. Overnight, the pace of progress will slow to a grind again. Just how they like it, where they feel they are in control again.

  • pzatchok

    Right now I feel that musk is a one man band in the space industry.

    But I can see he is pushing to expand the industry.
    Separating the Starlink internet company from his private holdings will make it a continuing customer of SpaceX. unless someone else comes by and offers launch services cheaper.
    Selling launch vehicles to the US government will add a second customer.

    It will be quite an achievement if another private company purchased a few SpaceX launch vehicles for their own space liner company or orbital construction enterprise.

    If I had the cash I would start the construction company.

  • Star Bird

    We got to the Moon before Russia we got the Grand Prize now its go to Mars

  • Edward

    Robert,
    Excellent essay.

    The following is why I agree with your sentence: “The focus is on freedom, profit, and competitive success, not power and government control.

    Governments tend to be bureaucratic and dislike change, as change is risky. Free markets tend to be competitive and require change in order for each competitor to improve upon the latest improvement from his competitors. The result is that under competition, more is done for less.

    Profit is the reward for these improvements, including the reduction in the use of resources.

    From the invention of the space rocket, eighty years ago, the governments that controlled spaceflight had little incentive to take the risk to improve their rockets, such as make their rockets reusable and inexpensive. They didn’t need to make the launches more affordable, because they were the major customer, a monopoly and monopsony all rolled into one. This is why the Space Shuttle lasted for so long despite its disappointing performance and cost.

    New competitors, such as Blue Origin and SpaceX, have found that reusable rockets improve the cost of access to space. Improved costs means more people, companies, and countries can join in the space industry, which increases the competition and increases the rate of improvements:
    https://behindtheblack.com/behind-the-black/points-of-information/bulgaria-credits-spacexs-low-costs-for-making-its-satellite-possible/

    No wonder we have companies announcing their intentions to go to the Moon or to Mars. Rather than a centrally controlled, governmental, bureaucratic, space agency choosing one destination over the other, we have competitive companies working toward both destinations, because they have the incentive to find ways to affordably go there.

    When we let only the government control what things are done, all we get are the things that government wants, and we have to pay the government price. The power is with the government.

    When We the People are free to control what things get done, we get the things that we want, and we get them for affordable prices, because we only buy them from the competitors who provide them for affordable prices. The power is with We the People.

    Because we are free.

  • Jimmy Davis

    Random Thoughts on Rights and Freedoms on Mars

    The very first Mars colony, if Musk pulls it off privately, will need to be unimaginebly invasive and strictly controlled. The governance might be in a sense corporate or contractual. The manager will probably require constant, intimate, universal surveillance. The perilous physical and emotional environment would create absolute interdependence and require unforgivng law enforcement. The management could, in theory, require passengers and colonist to renounce their former citizenships, and American-Martians might have to relinquish certain constitutional rights as soldiers do. I can’t imagine any current corporation allowing an individual, personal freedom to bear arms. The society on or under the ground would be like ancient ships at sea where the captain’s powers are godlike. The corporation could establish a contractual charter of rights and include a choice of law clause adopting a Terran legal system or could even launch from a private island and adopt its own law from scratch.

    The ship of freedom and personal, inalienable god given rights will be sailing off the map. Hic Sunt Dracones–certainly draconian laws and absolute communal controls.

  • Edward

    Jimmy Davis,
    This societal territory may not be as unexplored as you imagine. There may be dragons, here, but similar dragons have been encountered before. Perhaps they can be slain before they rear their ugly heads.

    Not-So-Random Thoughts on Freedom and Fairness:
    The Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony had tried a contract with each other that had seemed like it should work. Indeed, Marx wrote recommendations for a similar social contract, and other people tried it despite the terrible consequences that the Pilgrims suffered.

    For the people of Plymouth Colony, during the first seven years of the colony, everything would be communal property, everyone would work as hard as they could, and each person would receive what he needed. At the end of the seven year contract, all property would be divided equally and evenly among the population. This seems fair, right? Does this not sound similar to Marxism’s philosophy: “from each according to his ability; to each according to his need,” which also seems fair, right?

    Despite the small size and intimate nature of Plymouth Colony, with an opportunity for peer pressure to ensure that everyone worked as hard as they could, human nature took over. Some people did not work very hard but were receiving the hard-earned fruits of the hard-workers’s productivity. Complaints to the leader, William Bradford, were difficult to resolve. After the first tragic year, during which half the colony perished, including Bradford’s wife, the contract was abandoned in favor of a more free market capitalist, meritocratic system, where everyone worked as hard as he wanted and owned the results of his own productivity. Freeloaders then had to work for their meals, much more work got done, and that autumn there was so much surplus food that the colonists invited their Indian neighbors to a three-day feast. Here in America, we continue to celebrate our free market capitalist, meritocratic system with a similar annual harvest-time feast.

    I certainly hope that the future Martian colonial leaders will have learned from 400 years of history, that centrally controlled societies fail every time and that individuals who make their own choices tend to choose to improve their own circumstances and thus improve their communities. This is just as much human nature as is the reaction to Marxist methods.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *