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Reviews |  The case for more billionaires in space

Even by the standards of our juvenile, mean-spirited public discourse on Twitter, this is all unusually silly. He speaks of a contempt for human activity as such, and a casual disregard for a new model of space exploration that holds great promise for the United States.

First of all, it is not uncommon for pioneering entrepreneurs to be obsessed with the development of a new technology, and want to take part in the glory of its deployment.

One can only imagine what would have been said of earlier examples of this phenomenon if today’s standards applied.

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

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

Why did the Wright brothers waste their time flying a plane at Kitty Hawk when they could instead have focused on abuses in the meat packaging industry at the turn of the century?

Another space entrepreneur, Elon Musk, said without too much modesty earlier this year that he wanted to stimulate multiplanetary life and extend consciousness to the stars.

Bernie Sanders’ response was basically: Yes, but what about the proletariat?

The Vermont senator tweeted: “Space travel is an exciting idea, but right now we need to focus on Earth and create a progressive tax system so kids don’t go hungry, people don’t go hungry. are not homeless and that all Americans have health care. “

For better or for worse, this is not a proposition either / or. Nothing Musk does – you know, revolutionize the auto and space industries, among other efforts – stops Sanders, say, from passing his $ 3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill. In fact, Musk’s SpaceX company could be fully expropriated, and at a valuation of around $ 75 billion, it would only pay 2% of the budget bill.

When it comes to government spaceflight, it’s not like NASA has blown anyone away. The space shuttle was a flawed program, but since the last flight in 2011, the agency has been unable to send people into space on its own, which would appear to be a threshold test of the world’s first nation space agency.

It has been hampered by the political imperatives of a Congress that views nearly every government initiative as an employment program and by its flawed contracting model, along with other inevitable inefficiencies of government.

It was private actors who took over, notably Musk. It now regularly launches satellites into orbit for NASA and the military. He sent astronauts to the international space station. These are not vanity projects, but essential contributions to our existing publicly sanctioned space program.

Musk’s rockets are significantly cheaper than NASA’s. It’s extraordinary. After the heroic period of innovation with the start of the US-Soviet space race after Sputnik, the cost of space launches stubbornly remained stable after 1970, as if it was a law of nature that it couldn’t lower. Then came Musk.

Reducing costs is essential, not just because it saves taxpayers money. Lower cost means more satellite launches. More satellite launches mean cheaper satellites, due to economies of scale in production. When the whole process is less expensive, it creates an incentive for more technological innovation: engineers no longer have to be so careful.

Like a true entrepreneur, Musk strives to make his own technology obsolete. He wants to replace the partially reusable Falcon 9 rocket with the fully reusable Starship rocket. He is not satisfied, in what was the old aerospace model, to continue taking government money for his current technology until the government orders him to develop new technology.

The private space industry will open up prospects that cannot currently be predicted in an extremely large field. Consider only one dimension. The United States and China are in a new race for dominance in space, which has huge national security implications. Satellites are necessary for modern life, and today’s military cannot function without them. In any major conflict involving rival military personnel targeting satellites, power that has a technological advantage and the ability to launch new satellites quickly and easily will have an advantage. If Musk, Bezos, or anyone else helps provide that perk, they are making a contribution to the national interest that cannot be matched by the average chair of a Senate committee, let alone the average commentator on Twitter.

Typical criticisms of capitalists over the past decade have been that they only make incredibly complicated bets on the markets, or take over existing businesses in unnecessary exercises of ‘vulture capitalism’, or outsource. our jobs. But here, in the case of Musk and Bezos, are capitalists making very tangible products, with easily understandable – even inspiring – goals in collaboration with the US government.

What not to like?

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