Hooray For The New Space Race!

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Photo by David Cowan from FreeImagesAn amazing thing happened in the course of a week and a half this month. Did you notice it?

On July 11th, Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic spacecraft, fulfilled a pledge he made decades ago to fly into space. He brought along five others in his rocket plane.

Nine days later, and on the anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon, Jeff Bezos took a crew of four to the edge of space in his Blue Origin rocket. Aboard with the Amazon founder were the youngest (at 18) and oldest (at 82) people to have flown into space.

Somewhere on the horizon sits Elon Musk who, despite having his own spaceflight company (SpaceX), bought a ticket to ride on one of Branson’s next flights.

It should be noted, while all three represent private commercial ventures, only Musk is focusing on the freight business. Branson and Bezos envision launching (pun intended) a tourism business.

You’re probably guessing, at some point when the novelty wears off on passengers, the two tourist companies will also start carrying freight. This is not unlike what happened to the railroad business.

But if you’re going to dive into history for lessons here, you should do a deep dive. Go back to the original Age of Exploration to discover (again, pun intended) the true significance of these events.

Initially, European nations funded the explorers. Think of this as not a Space Race, but a New World Race, the impetus being, to somewhat varying degrees depending on the country involved, the classic triumvirate of “Glory, God, and Gold.”

Ultimately, it was the last of this triad in the form of its more boring cousin “commerce” that won the day. What drove this victory wasn’t nationally sponsored initiatives, but private ventures.

Mind you, even into the 18th century the line between “government” and “private” was quite blurry. Private initiatives still required the blessing (and protection) of their respective crowns. It was only with the success of the American Revolution did this stultifying umbilical cord get severed.

Understand the inevitability of all this. The Age of Discovery (Columbus et al) had to lead to the Age of Exploration (Hudson et al), which in turn required the growth of private ventures (East India Company et al).

Once the camel’s nose of private corporations snuck under the tent, it was only a matter of time before private citizens would decide to govern themselves (American Revolution, but not too many “et al” folks, at least for a while).

Do you see how this progression occurred? You need to have the largess of the State to start things. Once things began to move, it became apparent that individual ambition could drive the whole process.

You can see what happened with the different settlements in the New World how government sponsored (or, at the very least, sanctioned) activities fared versus their private competition.

There were four primary adversaries in North America: The Dutch, Great Britain, France and Spain. The order indicates where each nation fell on the private vs. public spectrum, the Dutch being spurred most by private commerce (it’s why New York City remains to this day a world-wide financial center) with the Spanish being the most government dependent.

Remember the thing about needing state sponsorship in the beginning. The Dutch, not having it, quickly lost their holdings in New York. They were the first team voted off the island in this Colonial Era version of “Survivor.”

The French left the scene, but that had mostly to do with global affairs. They did retain their Mississippi River holdings, but the fact Thomas Jefferson bought this (i.e., the Louisiana Purchase) tells you the power of a commerce-driven society.

More interesting is what happened to the remaining players Great Britain, Spain, and the new entrant America, which outdid the Dutch when it came to private commerce. There’s no question what the final score was. America (more so) and Great Britain (Canada) flourished while Mexico and Latin America floundered.

Though admittedly brief, this overview gives you a sense of why Branson, Bezos, and Musk need to take the lead in America’s burgeoning private space enterprises (yes, pun still intended). To get to the next level, we need to get the government out of it. Maybe not cold turkey (because our commercial ventures will require protection from foreign adversaries), but business has to start taking the lead. As with any industry, the more competition the better.

Which gets to the final point. You may have heard complaints from the usual suspects about this being a “billionaire’s ego thing.” These criticisms are nearly identical to those heard during the Apollo program (which are best characterized by the TV commercial that said, “We can put a man on the moon but we can’t make a good cup of coffee?!”).

Sorry, but comments like these are misguided. Calling them “Luddites” is a bit extreme, because the causes they prefer billionaires spend their money on are humanitarian in nature.

But that’s irrelevant. The money belongs to the billionaires. They earned it. They can decide how they want to spend it. And their cause (space transportation) is no less frivolous than the early automobile industry.

Can you imagine how third-world our life would be today if it weren’t for cars?

One hundred years from now, people reading the Sentinel might say the same thing about the space industry!

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