This week, while Americans on the ground saw the embarrassment of lost counts and found ballots, a part of America that works was making history: SpaceX and NASA launched four astronauts into orbit and docked the SpaceX capsule Resilience with the International Space Station.
It was the first of six commercial astronaut launches that NASA has purchased from SpaceX, the aerospace-manufacturing firm founded by the inventor Elon Musk.
As I explain in my new book, “America’s New Destiny in Space,” we are now entering a third age of space travel. The first age came in the early 20th century, when men like Soviet rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and American engineer Robert Goddard wrote and thought about space flight and tinkered with small rockets.
That was followed by the command-economy age of the German-American engineer Wernher von Braun and the Soviet Sergei Korolev, when “rocket men” funded by deep government pockets proved that the visionaries’ visions were attainable but expensive.
Now we are entering into a new phase, the sustainable age. We have gone from space projects driven by international tensions, like Apollo, or domestic politics, like the Space Shuttle, to things being done because they return economic value. And because they’re getting cheaper, which makes the return of value easier.
To launch a kilogram to orbit on the Space Shuttle cost almost $55,000. To do the same thing on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 costs a mere $2,700, roughly one-20th as much. Musk is promising that it will be a mere $200 on his next craft, the Starship.
A lot of things that are too expensive to do at $55,000 become profitable at $2,700 — and even more do so at $200. These are the kinds of cost reductions we are used to seeing in the electronics field, but not in the heavy-metal world of rockets
The lowered costs are already allowing SpaceX to launch its Starlink constellation of global broadband-Internet satellites, something that would have been unaffordable at Shuttle prices.
At $200 a kilo, all sorts of things become possible, from space hotels to asteroid mining to settlements on the moon and Mars. Space holds huge amounts of energy and materiel, but to take advantage of them, you have to get there. It’s now becoming a lot cheaper to get there.
A friend on Facebook compared this week’s SpaceX flight with the first Air Mail flight on May 15, 1918 — though, to be fair, the space launch went much more smoothly: This time, nobody ran out of gas or got lost. But the comparison is apt.
In the old Air Mail program of the 1920s, the US government didn’t build its own airplanes; it paid people to fly the mail, and paid them more when they used better airplanes.
With this incentive, the industry rapidly moved up the learning curve, going from the Curtiss Jenny used for the first mail flights to big multi-engine planes that could cross a continent in a relatively short span. And the cost of doing so went down with experience.
A small amount of federal spending, purchasing a product valuable in itself from the private economy, provided the impetus for a whole new industry, and cemented American dominance in aviation. The same thing will happen here, if we continue on our present path. (And SpaceX isn’t the only firm: Other companies like Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and less-famous ones like Sierra Nevada and Rocket Lab are also pursuing lower-cost space launches).
That raises the question of politics: Will we continue to see this sort of progress under a Biden administration?
Nobody knows, but the chances are pretty good. Aside from creating the Space Force, the Trump administration’s space policy was pretty much a continuation of the Obama administration’s. Even President Trump’s much-discussed executive order recognizing that US citizens could have property rights in resources they develop on the moon and asteroids was merely an implementation of a statute passed under, and signed by, President Barack Obama in 2015.
So there’s reason for hope. As most of the news continues to focus on 2020’s version of hanging chads, look up to the sky, and realize that some parts of America still work; a bright future still beckons.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a professor of law at the University of Tennessee and founder of the InstaPundit.com blog.
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