Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) recently launched their unmanned orbiting vehicle, Dragon, into space and is planning a rendezvous with the International Space Station in less than 24 hours. If this mission is a success, the picture I have pasted above will become iconic because it will mark the point where space exploration moved from the government sector (symbolized by the Space Shuttle) to the private sector (symbolized by the time lapse exhaust trail from the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket).
SpaceX is a private company started by Elon Musk and from the company’s website:
“In 2008, SpaceX won the NASA contract to replace the cargo transport function of the Space Shuttle with Falcon 9 and Dragon. President Obama and NASA Administrator Bolden decided in 2010 to outsource astronaut transport to the commercial sector. F9/Dragon is considered by many to be the leading system for that role.”
A successful mission will raise confidence that rockets and spacecraft can be designed, built and operated by private companies with help from NASA and will usher in a new era of spaceflight that has both short term and long term implications that I’ll explore with this post.
Global governments are struggling with massive debt and space programs are some of the first victims of austerity measures and the US experienced this with the retirement of the Shuttle program and other future cuts that most likely will affect a Mars Mission. I am a person who believes that a vibrant space program is needed but I am also a fiscal conservative and realize we must make tough decisions to safeguard our future. So having the space exploration/travel void filled by the private sector not only satisfies my scientific need to keep the space program going but also satisfies my economical need because it is my belief that the private sector can do a better job of space exploration than government entities.
To prove my point, let’s engage in a thought experiment. Imagine if the airline industry was run by the Federal government which would mean that the design, manufacture and operation of all airlines would be under the control of the Federal Airline Administration (FAA). This would mean that all employees – baggage handlers, flight attendants, mechanics, air traffic controllers, airport administrators and pilots – would be on the government payroll. The design and manufacture of airplanes would be controlled by the FAA and ultimately tax dollars would fund all of this. If you complain about flight delays and red tape now, just imagine how bad airline travel would be under full governmental control!
I envision the space industry morphing into something that resembles the current airline model where private companies control the business and the Federal government (through the FAA) sets the regulations. Imagine the technological boom for the US when other private companies are able to enter this market and provide products that not only satisfy the demands of the scientific community (launching satellites, telescopes, probes, etc.) but also satisfy the public demands by providing flights into space. The Free Market always does a better job of supplying the highest quality products at the lowest price that are delivered in the fastest time to a demanding market and the space industry should be no different. Capitalism works and the Invisible Hand that Adam Smith spoke of works in all industries from bread, milk, cars and space exploration/travel.
Make no mistake, launching and recovering vehicles from space safely is orders of magnitude more complex than flying a person from point A to point B but much of the heavy lifting has been done by NASA (as well as other government space programs in Russia, Europe and Japan) and they stand ready to have private industries build on their solid foundation to take space exploration/travel to the next level.
I really think the entrance of private industry to space exploration/travel could be the next “tech boom” that could jump start not only the US economy but economies around the world and lead to more focus on science and mathematical education in high school and college.
Apart from the financial boom that I claim will be realized once private industries become involved in space flight, there is a larger, philosophical benefit that I think we’ll see from this paradigm shift in the space exploration/travel market.
In a previous post I asked the question what would be the implications to human life on Earth once we discovered life on another planet. Would that revelation change the petty skirmishes counties we fight over? Would we now think of ourselves as Earthlings instead of Americans, Indians, Afghans or Russians?
Those question still stand but imagine a world where we have dozens of countries engaged in private sector space exploration/travel. There would still need to be a regulatory body and NASA would need to be linked up with the space regulatory bodies of the other countries so that space travel is coordinated. We can’t have rockets blasting off into space without coordination and regulation from other countries that are doing the same thing. Imagine if every state in the US had its own version of the FAA and didn’t coordinate cross country flights with other states. It would be pandemonium and the industry would quickly grind to a halt.
This increased cooperation and coordination would only benefit relations between other countries and move us from an isolationist worldview to a more inclusive worldview. Space is not owned by any country on Earth but is shared and once dozens of countries have private companies launching vehicles into space we’d start to realize that the exploring and traveling throughout the cosmos requires a level of cooperation that we have never seen.
I’m not advocating a single World Government or anything like that – countries must still maintain their sovereignty – but I think that greater cooperation in a noble endeavor such as space exploration/travel will bring us closer together and relegate some of our current warring differences to the ash heap of history.