The idea of space travel is embedded deep within the collective psyche of the United States of America and has been for a very, very long time. It saw its first light in the public’s fascination with the novels of H.G. Wells (War of the Worlds) and Jules Verne (From the Earth to the Moon and a Trip Around It) and the fantasy stories of John Carter of Mars written by Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs.
In the 1920s, the American physics professor Robert Goddard became the inventor of the chemically fueled rocket. He did so nearly alone with just a small private team of mechanics and engineers because the scientific community of the time did not consider rockets to be particularly interesting. But the idea was kept alive in the public’s imagination by the publication of the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon rocket adventure stories.
The real trigger for massive development, of course, was military, and started when Wernher von Braun of Nazi Germany took Goddard’s invention and developed it into the first intercontinental range ballistic missile, the V-2, and started using them to rain down bombs on London toward the end of World War II.
Both the United States and Russia took this hint and kicked off a major arms race in the 1950s, dumping increasingly massive amounts of resources into developing their own ability to rain bombs down on top of each other in case the need should ever arise.
On the United States side, work on a massive rocket engine called the F-1 that was eventually the base for the Saturn V moon rocket was begun in 1955 under President Eisenhower within a new space agency that was initiated by his administration. Seven years later, after experts were confident that it could be used to boost a capsule all the way to the moon, President Kennedy gave his famous speech committing the nation to send a man on the trip.
Much of the rest is fairly widely published and well known history. The Apollo project went to the moon and came back home nine different times, landing people on the surface six times. And since then we have had the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station.
So, in the United States, space flight is just one of those things that we do.
And, of course, the people at NASA are the ones who make it all happen.
Except … that’s not quite right.
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What a lot of people don’t realize is that most space launches are not by NASA. Most are commercial. (Some are military.)
But the title of the article is “space flight” and when we say it that way, we’re normally talking about sending people up into space.
Government did the initial development primarily in the context of national defense. And that provided an excellent foundation for the start of a new industry. But space launch vehicles, in spite of all the excitement of the fire and thunder of the launch, are basically just delivery trucks to orbit. And it’s not the proper role of the government to be incrementally developing delivery trucks.
Delivery trucks – even orbital ones – are, or, rather, should be, within the purview of commercial industry.
Unfortunately, because it is a fundamentally political organization that operates at the whim of the U.S. Congress and President, NASA has an on-again, off-again, sometimes on-again, mostly off-again, under-funded, bloated, horrendously expensive manned rocket development program called the Space Launch System (SLS). We’ll go into the details elsewhere, but this system uses old technology and left-over hardware from a failed program to attempt to replicate and maybe make incremental improvements on basically the same thing that NASA did 50 years ago.
Because doing familiar things while spending as much money as possible doing them is as far as Congress is able to think. So, SLS, rather than being a space launch system, is more of a congressional jobs program.
Boeing, the prime contractor for SLS, is a traditionally good company who, except for recently when they figuratively got caught with their pants down and several hundred people died on their newest version of their ancient 737 airliner, generally makes good, safe, traditional airplanes for passenger air travel.
But they are not a radical innovator in the field of space launch vehicles, a field that they’ve been involved in since near the beginning of the space program.
In the past few decades some radical innovators have sprouted up through the fertile domain of capitalism who are developing things that are exponentially both more aggressive and more efficient than anything we’ve seen in the past.
Since they’re not as well known as some of the more flamboyant companies, we’ll start with Bigelow Aerospace.
It was started by a guy who, back in the 1950s as a little kid decided he wanted to get into the space business. He then got into an innovative real estate project with the specific purpose in mind of making enough money to start a space travel company.
Since he’s in the hotel industry, his space product is an expandable habitat module. There is currently a prototype of it attached to the International Space Station.
His larger version could be launched using cheap heavy launch vehicles to put up in only a few launches a structure larger than the current space station at a small fraction of the cost.
Next: Jeff Bezos (founder of Amazon) and his space company Blue Origin is an example of what can be accomplished with the concentration of wealth and extreme income inequality that is enabled by capitalism. He has an active test version of a fully reusable vehicle capable of launching into space. He is developing an orbital launch vehicle. And he is working on engines for a vehicle capable of going to the moon.
His motivation is entirely commercial. Hotels in orbit. Vacations on the moon. Mining the asteroids.
Elon Musk and the SpaceX story.
Originally he thought in terms of, “If there is a will, there is a way.” But he abandoned that, seeing that the “ways” that had been figured out up to that point were horrendously inefficient and expensive and therefore not sustainable. So he changed it up to basically, “If you build it, they will come” with the intention of developing systems that could be cheap, reusable, efficient, and sustainable.
Include here example of prejudice in NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine’s tweet and story of him and Elon Musk quickly kissing and making up.
It’s sometimes good and necessary for government to do initial technological development, especially if there is a national security reason for it. But sustainability equals commercial viability and not bloated parasitic government programs that keep doing things the way they’ve always been done. Government should be supportive of (or at least not get in the way of) commercialism, efficiency, and innovation.