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Photo Credit: Blue Origin

The past couple of weeks have seen some notable developments in spaceflight. Not all of them were necessarily good, but they were useful. If for no other reason, they serve to clarify the government vs. private viewpoints.

First, we had Blue Origin’s successful all-up test of its New Shepard tourist spacecraft. Which, you may have heard, stuck the landing. From space. It’s a big deal, no matter how much Elon Musk tried to pooh-pooh it.

Musk, for his part, plans to bring his next Falcon 9 booster back for another landing attempt later this month. Perhaps goaded by Bezos’s success, this time they intend to fly the thing all the way back to Cape Canaveral instead of aiming for a barge. If successful, that will be an even bigger deal, given that the distances and velocities are roughly double what Blue’s booster had to negotiate (the current Blue Origin is designed to reach space; the Falcon 9 put payloads in space so that they stay in orbit; good explanation via XKCD).

Bezos rocked the boat enough. If SpaceX is successful (and they eventually will be), that crashing sound you hear will be “OldSpace” business models collapsing from Los Angeles to Titusville, Florida.

Now, let’s contrast this to the latest “news” from NASA. The very same day Blue Origin made history, our space agency announced it would be spending over 1 billion large for a new run of RS-25 engines to power its new “SLS” heavy-lift booster. These are the same engines that powered the Space Shuttle and were designed very nearly 40 years ago. Marvels of technology, probably the most efficient chemical rocket engines ever made. And they will be thrown away every single flight. Complex as they are, at least we got multiple uses out of them on the Shuttles.

Of course NASA insists this all part of their #JourneyToMars, a hashtag campaign that feels like an afterthought in an attempt to glom onto the success of The Martian. (Blast you, Andy Weir! I’m still working my day job and you’re getting movie deals from Ridley Scott!)

There’s just one catch: they have no plan, a fact which was inconveniently thrown in their faces just yesterday by the NASA Advisory Council. Like so much else in our government, it has become so bloated and inwardly focused that it is incapable of actually doing anything.

But there is hope. Another big event that went largely unnoticed last week was passage of the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act. Besides granting some much-anticipated regulatory relief (since private spaceflight is nowhere near where we thought it would be ten years ago), the law removed a major barrier to space investment. Namely, it clarifies the question of property rights to resources acquired in space. In other words, you can now stake your claim to an asteroid providing you can get there. Thankfully, people like Bezos and Musk are working on the “getting there” part.

Getting people and stuff into low earth orbit is sufficiently well understood now that it’s time to let the private sector take over. Let NASA use what budget it has for the kind of R&D we need to move beyond earth orbit (like advanced propulsion & life support).

In short, it’s past time to move beyond a space program and into a space industry. And like physics, we’re seeing that market forces will not be denied. The laws of economics may take longer to assert themselves, but they won’t be ignored.

There are 18 comments.

  1. Saint Augustine Member

    So can we in the near future hope to find a cash crop to make life on Mars pay off financially, start a few colonies to produce it along with a few more where nuns don’t have to pay for other people’s birth control (for a total of thirteen free colonies), and fight a war of independence against the oppressive homeworld?

    • #1
    • December 3, 2015, at 6:10 PM PST
    • Like
  2. I Walton Member

    I must be careful here, but let’s be clear about private vs public. The reason public sectors become dysfunctional, inept and corrupt is that there is no feed back, no accountability and no competition. Interests grow up around mistakes so mistakes aren’t fixed, they’re built around and accumulate over time. Moreover my corollary to Gresham’s law is bad bureaucrats and politicians eventually drive out good ones because key positions are worth more to them. The reason the private sector gets things right is because there is a constant cleaning out of failure and through an iterative process we creep Darwin like toward better outcomes. It’s all Chinese medicine not science or management magic. So liberals will point to the Marshal plan, Manhattan or the Moon projects as proof government is really great. These pulled the best, the brightest, the most enthusiastic and gave them specific goals. They did their thing, then the best moved on, or got old or tired, and those with few options stayed on or Gresham’s law kicked in, and through time they rot. When GM and US steel enjoyed decades long global near monopolies, even with a bottom line and a little competition, they rotted almost to the death.

    • #2
    • December 4, 2015, at 6:41 AM PST
    • Like
  3. Larry Koler Inactive

    Patrick, I just finished your two books, Perigee and Farside. I really enjoyed them. They are top notch, real old fashioned Sci-Fi. (You know where the Sci actually stands for science and the Fi part is just fiction not fantasy.) Thanks for writing them — they are excellent.

    Thanks for bringing attention to the private space endeavors. Bezos and Musk have the heroic attributes that make America what it is. God bless them both.

    • #3
    • December 4, 2015, at 7:12 AM PST
    • Like
  4. Larry Koler Inactive

    Saint Augustine:So can we in the near future hope to find a cash crop to make life on Mars pay off financially, start a few colonies to produce it along with a few more where nuns don’t have to pay for other people’s birth control (for a total of thirteen free colonies), and fight a war of independence against the oppressive homeworld?

    Brilliant question.

    • #4
    • December 4, 2015, at 7:12 AM PST
    • Like
  5. iWe Reagan
    iWe

    NASA is a job program, and a huge opportunity loss for America’s smart engineers.

    It is a damn shame when talent gets wasted.

    • #5
    • December 4, 2015, at 7:13 AM PST
    • Like
  6. Merina Smith Inactive

    Patrick, I’m curious about what sort of minerals will be found in space. How much do we know about that? And what about space tourism? Will that amount to an orbit around the earth, visits to the moon and that sort of thing? I have to admit, I’ve always thought it would be cool to see the earth from space.

    • #6
    • December 4, 2015, at 7:13 AM PST
    • Like
  7. Barkha Herman Member

    This is exactly why Peter Diamandis started the X-prize foundation. After finding out about the Ortiz Prize (you know, the one won by Charles Lindberg, and the one that ushered a new era in flight around the world), Diamandis decide to duplicate it by starting the X-Prize foundation. And now we have private space exploration.

    Gentlemen: As a stimulus to the courageous aviators, I desire to offer, through the auspices and regulations of the Aero Club of America, a prize of $25,000 to the first aviator of any Allied Country crossing the Atlantic in one flight, from Paris to New York or New York to Paris, all other details in your care.

    Yours very sincerely,

    Raymond Orteig

    I don’t think the space station is innovative. Going to the moon was innovative because we had no idea how to do it.

    Peter Diamandis

    • #7
    • December 4, 2015, at 7:14 AM PST
    • Like
  8. Larry Koler Inactive

    I Walton:I must be careful here, but let’s be clear about private vs public. The reason public sectors become dysfunctional, inept and corrupt is that there is no feed back, no accountability and no competition. Interests grow up around mistakes so mistakes aren’t fixed, they’re built around and accumulate over time. Moreover my corollary to Gresham’s law is bad bureaucrats and politicians eventually drive out good ones because key positions are worth more to them. The reason the private sector gets things right is because there is a constant cleaning out of failure and through an iterative process we creep Darwin like toward better outcomes. It’s all Chinese medicine not science or management magic. So liberals will point to the Marshal plan, Manhattan or the Moon projects as proof government is really great. These pulled the best, the brightest, the most enthusiastic and gave them specific goals. They did their thing, then the best moved on, or got old or tired, and those with few options stayed on or Gresham’s law kicked in, and through time they rot. When GM and US steel enjoyed decades long global near monopolies, even with a bottom line and a little competition, they rotted almost to the death.

    Great explanation. I agree that it is the lack of feedback that causes rot. Democratic governments do have the ballot box and so they are better than the totalitarian systems but it can take a long time to fix things on the back burners of the nations.

    • #8
    • December 4, 2015, at 7:14 AM PST
    • Like
  9. Johnny Dubya Inactive

    The shape of that thing, though.

    • #9
    • December 4, 2015, at 7:40 AM PST
    • Like
  10. Misthiocracy grudgingly Member

    Barkha Herman:This is exactly why Peter Diamandis started the X-prize foundation. After finding out about the Ortiz Prize (you know, the one won by Charles Lindberg, and the one that ushered a new era in flight around the world), Diamandis decide to duplicate it by starting the X-Prize foundation. And now we have private space exploration.

    Gentlemen: As a stimulus to the courageous aviators, I desire to offer, through the auspices and regulations of the Aero Club of America, a prize of $25,000 to the first aviator of any Allied Country crossing the Atlantic in one flight, from Paris to New York or New York to Paris, all other details in your care.

    Yours very sincerely,

    Raymond Orteig

    Apropos of nothing: Specifying New York to Paris seems kinda like a dick move. “Oh, you landed safely in Brittany? Too bad, so sad.”

    • #10
    • December 4, 2015, at 8:05 AM PST
    • Like
  11. Ontheleftcoast Inactive

    The arching sky is calling
    Spacemen back to their trade.
    ALL HANDS! STAND BY! FREE FALLING!
    And the lights below us fade.

    Out ride the sons of Terra,
    Far drives the thundering jet,
    Up leaps a race of Earthmen,
    Out, far, and onward yet —

    We pray for one last landing
    On the globe that gave us birth;
    Let us rest our eyes on the fleecy skies
    And the cool, green hills of Earth.

    Robert A. Heinlein

    • #11
    • December 4, 2015, at 8:23 AM PST
    • Like
  12. Casey Inactive

    Saint Augustine:So can we in the near future hope to find a cash crop to make life on Mars pay off financially, start a few colonies to produce it along with a few more where nuns don’t have to pay for other people’s birth control (for a total of thirteen free colonies), and fight a war of independence against the oppressive homeworld?

    I’m sure one day our great-grandchildren will lament, “The moon was free once. Until man settled there.”

    • #12
    • December 4, 2015, at 8:25 AM PST
    • Like
  13. Fricosis Guy Listener

    Johnny Dubya:The shape of that thing, though.

    Blue Steel?
    BlueSteel

    • #13
    • December 4, 2015, at 8:38 AM PST
    • Like
  14. Ross C Member

    iWe:NASA is a job program, and a huge opportunity loss for America’s smart engineers.

    It is a damn shame when talent gets wasted.

    And we see all the flaws of democracy in play here. I suspect (but do not know) that Republicans from Utah (rocket test facility) and Texas (Johnson space flight center) will never abandon their make work jobs programs regardless of whatever principles they espouse.

    • #14
    • December 4, 2015, at 8:45 AM PST
    • Like
  15. Patrick Chiles Inactive
    Patrick Chiles Post author

    Unfortunately true. There’s a reason SLS is widely derided as “Senate Launch System.”

    • #15
    • December 4, 2015, at 9:03 AM PST
    • Like
  16. The Question Inactive

    Larry Koler:

    Great explanation. I agree that it is the lack of feedback that causes rot. Democratic governments do have the ballot box and so they are better than the totalitarian systems but it can take a long time to fix things on the back burners of the nations.

    Good point. When I was a liberal, I justified my pro-government position on the basis that I get to vote for politicians, but I don’t get to vote on business executives. That was, of course, really stupid, because private businesses don’t have the power to take my money without my permission, and are thus far more accountable to me than politicians.

    • #16
    • December 4, 2015, at 9:10 AM PST
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  17. Mark Wilson Member

    Those Blue Origin guys seem rather pleased.

    • #17
    • December 4, 2015, at 11:11 AM PST
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  18. Profile Photo Member

    Johnny Dubya:The shape of that thing, though.

    I immediately thought of Austin Powers.

    Chinese Teacher: Wang. pay attention.

    Wang: I was distracted by that giant flying…

    Musician: Willie.

    Willie: Yeah?

    Musician: What’s that?

    Willie: [squints] Well, that looks like a huge…

    Colonel: Johnson.

    Radar Operator: Yes, sir?

    Colonel: Get on the horn to British Intelligence and let them know about this.

    • #18
    • December 4, 2015, at 12:16 PM PST
    • Like