Rich Lowry / July 29, 2021

The Beauty of Billionaires in Space

There may be all sorts of legitimate grounds for criticizing billionaires, but attaining suborbital flight under their own power doesn’t seem one of them.

Rarely has stunning human achievement been greeted with as much churlishness as when Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos managed to fly or launch themselves into space.

There may be all sorts of legitimate grounds for criticizing billionaires, but attaining suborbital flight under their own power doesn’t seem one of them.

Branson and Bezos were mocked and criticized for not paying enough taxes, for being selfish and wasteful, for ignoring problems here on Earth, and so on.

Even by contemporary Twitter-driven standards, all of this is exceptionally stupid. It speaks of a contempt for human endeavor as such, and a casual disregard for a hugely promising new model of space exploration.

First of all, it’s not unusual for entrepreneurial pioneers to be obsessively consumed by the development of a new technology, and to want to partake of the glory of its rollout. One can only imagine what would have been said about prior instances.

Couldn’t Samuel Morse have been less of a showboat about it when he sent his famous message on the new telegraph line between Washington and Baltimore, “What hath God wrought?”

Wasn’t it incredibly selfish of Henry Ford to build racing cars early in his career, when winning automobile races does nothing to improve the human condition?

Why did the Wright brothers waste their time flying a plane at Kitty Hawk, when they could have focused on the abuses in the meatpacking industry instead?

It’s not as though government space flight via NASA has been knocking anyone’s socks off. The space shuttle was a flawed program, but since the last flight in 2011, the agency hasn’t been able to send people into space on its own.

NASA has been hobbled by the political imperatives of a Congress that considers almost every government initiative a jobs program and by its flawed contracting model, as well as other inevitable government inefficiencies.

Private actors have stepped into the gap, especially another space entrepreneur, Elon Musk. He is now routinely launching satellites into orbit for NASA and the military. He has flown astronauts to the international space station. These aren’t vanity projects, but essential contributions to our existing publicly sanctioned space program.

Musk’s rockets are significantly cheaper than those of NASA. Following the heroic period of innovation with the onset U.S.-Soviet space race, the cost of space launches stayed stubbornly flat after 1970. Then, along came Musk.

Lower cost means more satellite launches. More satellite launches mean cheaper satellites, because of efficiencies of scale. When everything is less expensive, it creates an incentive for more technological innovation — engineers don’t have to be as cautious anymore.

In true entrepreneurial fashion, Musk is working to make his own technology obsolete. He wants to supplant the partially reusable Falcon 9 rocket with the fully reusable Starship rocket. He’s not satisfied, in what was the old aerospace model, to keep taking the government’s money for his current technology until the government directs him to develop something new.

The private space industry is opening up new vistas in an enormously consequential area. Consider just one dimension. In any major conflict that involves rival militaries targeting each other’s satellites, the power that has the ability to launch new satellites quickly and easily will have an edge. If Musk, Bezos or someone else helps provide that edge, they are making a contribution to the national interest that can’t be matched by the average Senate committee chair, let alone the average caviling commentator on Twitter.

The typical critiques of capitalists over the past decade have been that they only make incomprehensibly complicated bets on the markets, or that they take over existing companies in pointless exercises in “vulture capitalism,” or that they outsource our jobs. But here are, in the case of Musk and Bezos, capitalists making very tangible products, with easily understandable — indeed, inspiring — goals, in conjunction with the U.S. government.

What’s not to like?

© 2021 by King Features Syndicate

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