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NASA’s choice of Starship proves government now fully embraces capitalism in space

Five years ago, before Donald Trump had even announced he was running for president, before Elon Musk had proposed his Starship/Superheavy rocket, and even before SpaceX had successfully begun to dominate the launch market, Jerry Hendricks at the Center for for New American Security (CNAS) asked me to write a policy paper on the state of the American launch industry, providing some background and more importantly, some recommendations that policy makers in Washington, dependent on that launch industry, could use as guidance in the coming years.

CNAS is a Washington, D.C., think tank that was founded in the middle-2000s by two political Washington insiders, one a Democrat and the other a Republican, with a focus on foreign policy and defense issues and the central goal of encouraging bi-partisan discussion. Hendricks’ area of focus was defense and aerospace matters, and at the time he thought the changes being wrought by SpaceX’s with its partly reusable Falcon 9 rocket required in-depth analysis. He had heard my many reports on this subject on the John Batchelor Show, and thought I could provide him that analysis.

The result was my 2017 policy paper, Capitalism in Space: Private Enterprise and Competition Reshape the Global Aerospace Launch Industry. In it I reviewed and compared what NASA had been getting from its parallel rocket programs, the government-designed and owned Space Launch System (SLS) rocket versus the privately-designed commercial rockets of SpaceX and Orbital ATK (now part of Northrop Grumman). That review produced this very simple but starkly revealing table:

SLS vs Commercial space

From this data, combined with my extensive knowledge as a historian of American history and culture, resulted in the following fundamental recommendations:

  • 1. The private builders should own what they build
  • 2. Let those private companies design what they build, and let them keep things as simple as possible
  • 3. Use fixed-price contracts and insist companies partly finance what they build
  • 4. Award contracts in a manner that will encourage private competition
  • 5. Reduce the overhead, transferring the bulk of the spending to the companies actually doing the work

When the paper was released in 2017, Hendricks made a focused effort to have it delivered to as many policymakers as possible in both the Trump administration and in Congress. He made sure it was personally handed to Vice President Mike Pence. I later received phone calls from people in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and in NASA who had read it and wanted more details.

Did the paper have any influence? For a long time I was not sure. It seemed the Trump administration was interested, but initially at least it seemed they were more focused on recreating a Kennedy-like space program, aimed at establishing a new Apollo-like government program for putting American boots on the Moon by 2024. Moreover, my sense of the think tank culture of Washington was that it was not interested in these types of recommendations, as they all took power and money from that Washington community and gave it to private companies operating independently and freely.

With time the direction of both Trump and NASA seemed to shift in the direction of my recommendations, though it seemed that many people in those government bodies did it with some reluctance. For example, during the development period for the manned capsules built by both SpaceX and Boeing (contracts that clearly followed the first four recommendations above), there was a strong effort for a long time by NASA’s safety panel and others in NASA’s management to slow SpaceX and hinder its success, while favoring Boeing because Boeing had been a partner with NASA for decades.

Later, under NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine the agency appeared to embrace these recommendations more wholeheartedly, canceling a number of NASA-built projects, such as NASA’s homebuilt Lunar Resource Prospector, and instead awarding multiple smaller contracts to many different private companies. Still, there was a sense that much of this was being done not to encourage private enterprise but to create vested interests who would be tied to NASA and its goals.

Last week’s decision by NASA, under the Biden administration, to award SpaceX the contract to use its Starship as the lunar lander for NASA’s Artemis program clearly signaled that our federal government now embraces the first four of these recommendations quite strongly. Though they did not award two competing contracts, they explained that the main reason was that Congress had appropriated less than half of what they had requested. They simply did not have the money to pay for two landers. NASA officials also stated bluntly that they do not want to be dependent on only one company, and fully desire other companies to come forward in the future with new competitive ideas that cost less and that can beat out SpaceX is price and quality.

More important, this decision was made under a different president. The shift toward favoring private enterprise that had started in NASA during the Trump administration is clearly continuing under the Biden administration. NASA’s management now appears eager to give private independent companies the job of building rockets and spacecrafts, using their own designs and not NASA’s.

In fact, that decision prompted me to reread my 2017 recommendations in Capitalism in Space. In doing so I was startled how completely the first four of my recommendations above have been embraced by Washington. That swamp has now accepted the idea of private enterprise and capitalism, based on that often forgotten concept called freedom. For Americans, this bodes very well for our country’s future in space.

For a dose of reality however it is important to also note how little that swamp has done when it comes to my fifth recommendation, calling for it to reduce its overhead. Despite shifting power and ownership to the private sector, neither the Trump and Biden administrations nor NASA has made the slightest effort to cut expenses within government. With private companies now doing the bulk of all design and construction, there really isn’t that much for the manned space bureaucracy in NASA to do. The agency could likely eliminate entire centers, such as Marshall in Alabama, while reducing significantly the size of many others, in Kennedy in Florida, Stennis in Mississippi, and Johnson in Texas, and the entire space industry would hardly notice at all. In fact, the savings of money and the elimination of many interfering bureaucrats would probably improve things enormously.

Instead, the Biden administration has called for an increase in NASA’s budget. While much of this money will likely go to these new private companies and the work they will do to get the government’s space objectives accomplished, just as much if not more will go to expanding the NASA bureaucracy, for no real good purpose.

Liberty enlightening the world
A light to change the entire universe.

Nonetheless, this one dark cloud does not ruin what looks like the possibility of a very bright future. While terrible things might be happening within America’s culture on Earth, the foundation for a robust, free, independent, and competing aerospace industry in space appears to be moving forward.

And just as the success of the United States in North America in the 1700s and 1800s forced a reformation and revolution in Great Britain and Europe, ending monarchy and bringing freedom to millions, a similar success in space in the coming century could bring the same reformation to the United States of today, returning this nation to its fundamental principles of liberty, law, and the right of every citizen, no matter their race, religion, or creed, to pursue their happiness, wherever it takes them.

As Democrat politician Adlai E. Stevenson Jr. said in 1952, “My definition of a free society is a society where it is safe to be unpopular.” A free society in outer space might teach Americans to once again treasure that ideal, and allow unpopular ideas the right to be spoken, if only because you can’t have freedom if such ideas are squelched.

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


  • Well said Bob.

    What would your Table 4 and 5 look like updated for 2021?

  • Steve Golson asked, “What would your Table 4 and 5 look like updated for 2021?”

    Essentially, the numbers would make SLS look much worse, and private space much better. Though it is five years since I compiled those tables, SLS has still not completed a launch, while SpaceX and Orbital ATK/Northrop Grumman have been sending more cargo capsules AND manned capsules into space.

    As for budget, the numbers for SLS have not changed much, other than adding two years to the total, about $5 billion, so that SLS/Orion’s total appropriated cost through its first manned flight will likely be just under $50 billion.

  • David Eastman

    I’m not sure how much I believe your assertion that the Biden administration has shown itself to be following this path. Bill Nelson hasn’t been confirmed yet, and in fact members of the House criticized the SpaceX selection on expressly that basis, that acting management shouldn’t be making decisions like that before the new administration had full control. I’ve seen more than one take that NASA pushed the decision through now because they felt that Nelson would, if not forcing another result, at least cause extensive delay in the process trying to do so.

  • David Eastman: Your skepticism is wise. I agree with it.

  • Jeff Wright

    This reminds me of a Fox program years back where the topic of space came up. The late Charles Kraut’ was very much pro-NASA, while the Democrat thought it should be private’

    That’s how you know when Democrats just don’t care about an issue-because…if he really believed in privatization…he’d support that across the board and not be a Democrat anymore, right?

    But Charles just knew that all really came from the long standing hatred of defense/aerospace infrastructure that liberals and libertarians alike are both guilty of.

    I miss Charles Krauthammer .
    If I were Q from ST:TNG–I’d bring him back to life…and able to walk…having him trade places with the Marshall haters who would look good in a pine box next to Proxmire.

  • George C

    Editing error; you said Johnson in Florida. That reminds me of an old rumor told in Cambridge MA. That if Kennedy had not died that Mission Control would have been where the Volpe Center is now near MIT.

  • George C: Thank you. Stupid mistake. Now fixed.

  • Edward

    To achieve the fifth recommendation would require a major reorganization of NASA, and this may have to wait until there is more commercialization of space. Once NASA gives up owning manned spacecraft, it will have less need for as many centers, as all manned operations can be consolidated to one center. So far, unmanned exploration has not yet been much commercialized. They have started with lunar landers, but once that concept has been proved then NASA can expand its use of private space exploration. More consolidation. Then we would need to decide whether the aeronautic portion of NASA needs more than one center.

    Perhaps JPL would be better off as an independent private (e.g. Cal Tech) space exploration organization that is hired by NASA to do planetary exploration.

  • Jeff Wright

    I don’t know that NASA should give up owning anything. Musk can’t do it all.

    I have-for years-tried to get people to quit calling infrastructure ‘pork.’ Imagine if-years ago- JSC was to have all responsibily…all other centers shuttered BRAC style.
    Every “Rand-something-or-othern” would have clapped….and NASA simply would have been seen as that one state’s pork-and there would be no HLS for Elon to win had libertarians had their way. That type thinking is every bit as damaging as Greens who would also kill off space infrastructure.

    Now-you can argue that it shouldn’t be this way-but I think it is great that so many people are employed by space-that so many states have a vested interest in it. That’s the nature of the beast guys. Just know that America’s enemies are rooting for those of you who can put the most engineers out of work.
    Musk may just live long enough to see Old Space die….and to see New Space be the next target…with no allies left to side with:

    “And then they came for me, but…”

  • On your last point, like Columbus discovering the western hemisphere, what we are really doing here is accessing more territory. The greatest outcome won’t be scientific exploration but the eventual establishment of many new nations including the opportunity for freedom-loving people to demonstrate in the modern era what that looks like.

  • DougSpace: Which is exactly the final most important point of my next book, coming in very soon.

  • Jeff Wright

    You want old and new space alike for that. Mask/shutdown zealots hurt Mom-and-pops like libertarinans hurt heavy industry-making China stronger and us weaker.

    Fauci, the Greens, Randians-haven’t you done enough damage?

    Real people get hurt by idealists in their drawing rooms.

    Libertarian/Conservatives carryed the water for corporate America-and in the way of thanks…you get thrown over for their latest new girlfriends in the Build Large Mansions movement-and still, you want Red State Alabamians at Marshall in the poorhouse instead?

  • Edward

    Jeff Wright complained: “Libertarian/Conservatives carryed the water for corporate America-and in the way of thanks…you get thrown over for their latest new girlfriends in the Build Large Mansions movement-and still, you want Red State Alabamians at Marshall in the poorhouse instead?

    Ah, yes. It is the responsibility of the rest of America to make sure that Alabama has jobs and mansions. Not the responsibility of Alabamians but of everyone else. Apparently Alabama has gone blue. Jeff Wright is one of those advocating that NASA should be a jobs program rather than an exploration organization. Forget about free market capitalism; it generates so much prosperity that people end up living too well.

    Last year, I thought that Alabama and its populace were mature enough to take care of themselves, but this year I am learning that they aren’t adult enough to compete with any other country, state, or business. Even the seamstresses aren’t very good, in Jeff’s eyes.

    Or maybe Jeff is right, and we really have it out for Alabamians. It’s not business; it’s personal.

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