Early Tuesday morning, SpaceX launched their Falcon 9 rocket with its Dragon capsule into orbit, where it is now hurtling towards the International Space Station where it will hopefully become the first “commercial” or “private” spacecraft to dock at the ISS.
It is a little hard to appreciate the importance of this, as human beings have been launching rockets for decades. But until recently, outer space has been limited to the domain of large governments that had the enormous resources required to figure out how to escape earth’s gravity and design giant vehicles that could do it, all while being able to absorb delays and setbacks into a big government budget.
Despite my strong anti-government libertarian leanings, I’ve always been partial to NASA, because I think they’ve done some really cool stuff and I’ve never been sure that private businesses would have had the resources or incentives to do the same things. Sure, we can argue about whether or not the moon landing was a waste of money or if the byproducts of NASA research would have happened anyway or how much NASA adds value by inspiring generations of scientists and engineers and mathematicians, but, just from a purely selfish perspective, I think landing on the moon and sending rovers to Mars is pretty awesome and exciting and inspiring. I don’t have a problem with a small portion of our national budget going to the pure advancement of science and exploration of the universe, and it seems to me that for a long time neither have a lot of other Americans.
But while the universe may be unlimited, government budgets are not. It would be really cool to land humans on Mars, too, but how much would that cost the USA, anyway, and what would be the point? I don’t think we can afford every grandiose vision of exploring the final frontier these days, and as a matter of libertarian principle, I’m OK with saying, Hey, I would love to keep funding space projects, but our government has more important things to focus on right now. Indeed, NASA is one of the few government programs that seems to be doing less these days; they launched their last space shuttle last year. I can accept cutting back on our knowledge of the wonders of the universe if we just can’t afford it anymore.
But maybe I won’t have to. Last month we learned about Planetary Resources, which wants to mine asteroids, funded by billionaires like James Cameron and a couple of Google founders. That was just the latest in a growing trend. Billionaire Richard Branson’s company Virgin Galactic has been working on spaceflight for several years now. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has his own company, Blue Origin, working on similar things. And, of course, we have PayPal founder Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which hopes to start launching humans into orbit next year. Musk’s ultimate goal? “I’m planning to retire on Mars.”
To be fair, SpaceX is not completely out of the public sphere; NASA is paying them for the launches it has stopped doing itself. But as Scott notes at Expected Optimism, this hybrid is a trend in the direction away from government action and into private hands, unlike many other sectors of the economy that seem to be heading in the opposite direction. Depending on how you slice the numbers with research and development, SpaceX is already catching up to NASA’s rocket costs and should soon be able to drive them much cheaper with its many innovations.
Much uncertainty remains. There are plenty of skeptics who doubt that mining asteroids or reaching Mars is plausible and – more importantly for private ventures – profitable. But the first hurdle is already being scaled: apparently large governments aren’t the only organizations with the resources to get things off our planet. Maybe these private businesses can stand on the foundations built by governments of the last few decades, utilizing classic capitalistic incentives to do things cheaper and faster and better and more awesome than ever before. I never had a problem with “the rich getting richer” by giving the world useful services like Google, Amazon, and PayPal. But now these billionaires want to use their wealth to fund galactic enterprises that have the potential to benefit humanity in extraordinary ways! Has capitalism ever looked this cool?!
Maybe they’re just wasting their money, and nothing important will ever come of it. But they’re already accomplishing things that were unthinkable a few years ago, and these companies – and the ones yet to come – will surely accomplish more in the future than they have already. It’s an exciting time to be alive, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.