At this point, very few in the space industry would argue the many societal benefits that the world inherited from the first Space Race. From integrated circuits to Bill Anders’ iconic Earthrise picture from Apollo 8, which launched the modern environmental movement, government space investments have certainly elevated our standard of living for the last 50 years. Just as a successful gambler’s strategy is as much about knowing when to walk away as it is how to place bets, our government should consider pivoting to a similar strategy of stepping away from its once-successful, yet now obsolete, system designs to become a fully-fledged consumer of commercial solutions. The past few weeks have made it explicitly clear that the future of space exploration and discovery now belongs to private enterprise, and a free government’s role is to regulate and promote commerce.
In these early years, billionaires’ names will grab the headlines, much like their railroad, steel, and oil forebearers did in the 19th century. These early industrialists were labelled “robber barons” and very often unfairly maligned, but they were an essential part of ushering in the American Century. Were they flawed and egotistical? Probably. Maybe even sociopathic in their blind ambition to “Win the West.” But no historian denies that their audacity, creative genius, and business acumen were essential to the growth that we still benefit from to this day. In today’s space race, commercial rockets, satellites, and space tech infrastructure will transform every sector of the future human economy – the new “Wild, wild west,” as General Jay Raymond likes to call it.
We have broken through an historical barrier: governments are no longer necessary to safely ferry humans to space. In the past two weeks alone, two commercial companies safely launched private citizens into space, while another is already delivering and returning astronauts from earth orbit. Encouraging their endeavors in space is not only good, but also necessary for the U.S. to continue to lead the world economically and politically.
Three billionaires are forging their own path on the road towards greater access to and use of space. Already beginning to be maligned like their 19th century counterparts, Richard Branson, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos together are recapturing the imagination of a world whose interest in space has waned since the first Space Race – a feat nearly as difficult as the rocket science itself.
Richard Branson, the penultimate branding genius, saw an opportunity following Paul Allen and Burt Rutan’s Ansari XPRIZE victory in building the first private spaceship. While SpaceShipOne inspires future generations of intrepid explorers as an important exhibit at the Smithsonian, Branson negotiated a licensing agreement for Paul’s intellectual property and built the multi-billion dollar machine which came to be known as Virgin Galactic, the world’s first “spaceline.” This month, Branson became the first person to ride into space aboard a rocket he helped fund. While he is technically the first billionaire of the bunch to do so, it does not matter which American gets to space first. What does matter is that we are creating a robust, competitive industry with private money.
No one understands that more than Elon Musk, who has earned most of his sizeable fortune in the space and automotive business. His bold vision, sense of urgency, and relentless perseverance are helping to secure America’s space future in the race against near-peer adversaries like China. Musk’s comfort level with big risks and simple leadership style – “if the schedule is too long, it’s probably wrong” – make exactly the right recipe to shake up the remaining piece of our Cold War planned economy. Today, thousands of companies and entrepreneurs around the world have been both inspired and enabled by SpaceX low cost launch services. Overly obsessed with his role in mankind’s destiny and a little too pushy for the staid aerospace industry? Perhaps. But maybe this mercurial visionary is exactly what is needed to secure the free world’s space security against a gathering red storm.
Jeff Bezos, Musk’s archrival billionaire in the race to win the solar system, is already making enduring contributions to the new space industry as well. In a head-to-head matchup, United Launch Alliance, the reliable but more expensive national security launch provider, has selected Bezos’ BE-4 rocket engine for its critical first stage over veteran producer Aerojet Rocketdyne. While his first space exposition to the public was relatively modest with the recent New Shepherd launch, Bezos invests over a $1B a year of his own money to advance his goals. The roadmap of his vision for the galactic human stretches far beyond his lifetime, too. Many think that “millions of people living and working in space” is too far-fetched a goal, but critics once doubted his new approach to buying things on the internet. Perhaps the stunt of sending himself into space on the New Shepherd is akin to Amazon’s earliest days, when he was just selling books. It is clear his personal vision does not end with Amazon and that its success is the economic engine behind his biggest passion project, Blue Origin.
How much these billionaires should be paying in taxes is an important policy debate, as some like Bernie Sanders make the argument that it is even immoral just to be a billionaire. The irony of this rhetoric is that the alternative is diverting taxpayer dollars from bridges and roads to compete against these private companies with no completion end game. Instead, these high-net-worth individuals are using their wealth to foster an industry with direct benefits to the U.S. and actually generating tax revenue. The American taxpayer spent nothing to send Bezos to space. We should want more of this, not less, as the immediate and long-term benefits of these free-market transactions will not only advance the science, but also the possibilities of humankind – with minimal cost to the American taxpayer.
It is imperative that free nations win the second Space Race. A well-regulated commercial space industry, encouraged and promoted by our government like any other vital sector, is essential. In stark contrast to the first space race, private capital will be the requisite ingredient to our victory, and government investment must seek to leverage it, not compete against it.
The winners in this race will not be decided when a capsule touches back down on sea or land, or a spaceplane lands in the New Mexican desert. On the contrary – that is only the beginning. Just as the West was not won when Lewis and Clark first caught a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean, the West was simply deemed “open for business.” The fact is that we cannot project now the true value of this rivalry playing out in front of us today, as these billionaires dare to challenge physics and stretch what is possible. Decades from now when anyone is free to roam the final frontier and realize their dreams, I think we’ll realize that humanity was the real winner.