Private Enterprise Will Never Open the Space Frontier

“Private enterprise can never lead a space frontier.  It’s not possible because a space frontier is expensive, it has unknown risks and it has unquantified risks.” Neil deGrasse Tyson, member of two national committees aimed at directing NASA’s “next big thing” made that comment a few years ago.

A few days ago, SpaceX launched their Falcon Heavy booster, carrying Elon Musk’s own Tesla Roadster and a spacesuited mannequin into solar orbit running between that of Earth and beyond Mars.  And he did it for less than anything NASA or any other government agency could do.

What Tyson neglected to consider (being charitable) is that it’s far easier to get a rich man with a vision and the will to pursue that vision than to get a high level government bureaucrat with one.

Many wealthy end up very financially conservative, unwilling to risk their wealth on unproven ventures.  But people don’t become wealthy by doing so.  “Safe” investments don’t pay high returns.  It’s only by being able to take risks that one is able to break out of the mundane to really obtain wealth.

What John Paul Jones said (not his most famous expression, but possibly his most important) in a military context applies here as well:  “He who will not risk cannot win.”

And some of those who do amass great wealth retain the attitude of being willing to risk to obtain wealth after they have obtained it.  This is an attitude that is systematically weeded out of bureaucrats.

The late Jerry Pournelle described the reason for that in his Iron Law of Bureaucracy:  In any bureaucratic organization there are two kinds of people.  The first are those dedicated to the goals of the organization.  The second are those dedicated to the organization itself.  The Iron Law states that in every case the second group will obtain and keep control of the organization.  It will write the rules and control promotions within the organization.

Tyson is that second type of bureaucrat, as have been all the top people in NASA and related organizations for quite some time. (In Dyson’s case this involved serving on the Commission on the Future of the US Aerospace Industry and the 2004 “Moon Mars and Beyond” commission.) Iron Law in action.  “Developing the space frontier” was not his goal in any of the posts he held, but promoting NASA and the government bureaucracy itself was.  Actually developing space was purely a secondary issue, something paid lip service in order to further the bureaucracy itself.  This is why he didn’t raise any big fuss at NASA being given a mandate for “Muslim outreach” during the Obama administration.  Space, Muslim outreach?  Whatever, so long as he’s able to further the organization itself.  It was all good with him.

And, of course, part of the furthering of the organization itself is disparaging and undercutting any potential competition for the “turf.”

Of course private enterprise couldn’t do it.  Space was the purview of his organization, his turf.

Well, the results are in.  While SpaceX still has to use NASA facilities (more turf protection–legal restrictions that make private launch facilities prohibitive) Elon has been able to make some of the key initial steps toward opening the space frontier.  The Falcon Heavy is capable of carrying more than twice the payload of the nearest competitor to Low Earth Orbit at a fraction of the cost.  Here’s a comparison of the Falcon Heavy with other historical US launchers:

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Of current launchers, compare the Ariane 5 carrying 35,000 lbs to LEO at a cost of upwards of $165 million.  The Falcon Heavy carries 4 times as much for just over half the price, almost an order of magnitude cheaper on a weight for weight carried into orbit basis.

And the Falcon Heavy did that while successfully landing its two external boosters, simultaneously, for reuse.  It lost the core, but for a first test flight this was a phenomenal achievement.

As Dick Rutan said after the round-the-world unrefueled flight of the Voyager 1, another unprecedented, private venture. “See what free men can do.”

See what free men can do.

 

 

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4 thoughts on “Private Enterprise Will Never Open the Space Frontier”

  1. “When an elderly and distinguished scientist says that something is possible, he is very probably right. When he says something is impossible, he is almost certainly wrong.”
    — Arthur C. Clarke (Clarke’s First Law)

  2. Clarke’s Three Laws of Prognostication:

    The only way to explore the limits of the possible is by going beyond to the impossible.

    When an elderly and distinguished scientist says that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he says that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

    Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

    Never could remember the order in which they are numbered.

    The late Isaac Asimov once tried to declare an “exception” to the “is very probably wrong” related to if the idea is popular with the general public then the elderly scientist is probably right after all. That, in that case, he was the “elderly and distinguished scientist” claiming the thing was impossible had nothing whatsoever to do with the case, I’m sure.

    Heinlein, OTOH, once gave, in response to that “law” the rule for making a truly important breakthrough or invention: look for what the elderly and distinguished scientist says is impossible, and then do it.

  3. The law about bureaucracy is so relevant to me; thanks. I fear for the Lib Party, that too many there are more interested in the LP as an org, rather than reducing the size and power of gov’t in practice.

    My wife in Slovakia is a Christian Democrat, and they failed to get into the national parliament (getting 4.97% of the vote, needing 5%). So there was a lot of the old guys, ‘dinosaurs’, who went out along with the prior leader. The new & current leader is facing a challenger, who represents the older guys.

    In the US, too many Reps in office are more concerned about staying in office rather than actually achieving conservative goals. Which, as I think of them, are to conserve Liberty — so that Free People can achieve more good things. Trump supporters included conservative Reps who are more interested in stopping the gov’t from growing more progressive rather than supporting current comfy Reps in office.

    A lot of “populism” is anti-bureaucracy.

    We could use term limits on gov’t employess: no more raises after 8 years in gov’t (tho promotions are possible) – after 12 years 10% reduction in salary every year, and no promotions, until you voluntarily leave.

  4. Tom Grey,
    I liked and agree with your comment, with the exception of term limits. If you have term limits that is an infringement of me being able to vote for whomever I want. We have a current situation of government that is a direct result of voters mot exercising their responsibility in being active in the process. Yes there are as you say a lot of dinosaurs in government, government which needs a cleaning top to bottom.
    To those who put their faith in ” term limits” I remind them that governments are instituted and populated by people not angels. As people they are corruptible which would make “term limits” corruptible. This in part is what the “Founders” meant when they said the People must have eternal vigilance when it comes to the government.
    Phew, enough “smart things” my head hurts.

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