Sunday, January 3, 2016

SpaceX, government and creative destruction

Charles Krauthammer was excited, in his op-ed a few days ago, by Elon Musk’s SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which managed to return its booster rocket to land intact.  He wrote a column in praise of it, and in praise of the new role of private enterprise in extending and expanding the technology of space travel, particularly the pursuit of space travel at lower cost. 

So let me take this rare opportunity to say that I agree with Charles Krauthammer.  I agree that this transfer of spaceflight from government to private enterprise is spectacularly good; I agree with all the benefits he sees in it.  This technology is, hopefully (and finally!!!) mature enough to allow private visionaries to take it and run with it: many of us have been waiting for this and hoping for it for a very long time.  If in fact this technology has reached escape velocity, then I expect the private visionary entrepreneurs to do great things with it, and speed its development along, just as has happened before with many, many other technologies.  I expect them to drive the capabilities up and costs down much faster and much more efficiently than government alone ever would---not (or not only) because small-government fanatics have shrunk federal R&D budgets, but because I believe that competition and quixotic personal vision really are strong forces for putting new technologies to work.

I have still, of course, some discomforts with Dr. Krauthammer’s vision.  Compared with our overall agreement on the goodness the new private industry of space flight, of SpaceX and Blue Origin and all of their present and future competitors, these are minor things; but as a good hypersensitive liberal they irritate me like a pea under the mattress. 

In his column he said this:

“Musk predicts that the reusable rocket will reduce the cost of accessing space a hundredfold…assuming Musk is even 10 percent right, reusability revolutionizes the economics of spaceflight.”

Yes, total agreement.  But then:

“Which both democratizes and commercializes it.  Which means space travel has now slipped the surly bonds of government…”

The surly bonds of government, the cold government chains that held the whole of spaceflight back…right?  Full disclosure: I had a summer job running projectors at meetings at NASA in the late 1960s.  I don’t remember anyone there thinking they were imposing “surly bonds” on anyone.  On the contrary: they were enabling a new human epoch.   Private enterprise, at that time, was not doing space flight, and was not about to do space flight.  And: democratizes it???  Ummm….no.  This transfer from government to private entrepreneurs emphatically does just the opposite.  This un-democratizes it.  Democracy is a form of government.  It is government that is generally controlled by democratic vote; private enterprise rarely is.  From now on, maybe, space flight can be pursued in idiosyncratic and highly undemocratic ways by private investors.  Some of their idiosyncrasies will fail, but with luck some will succeed, for a time at least, before being razed to the ground and replaced by new idiosyncrasies, and old failing entrepreneurs replaced by new entrepreneurs with newer visions, in what Schumpeter famously called the “gale of creative destruction” that produces progress in the private economy. 

But none of them will have to achieve a democratic national consensus to proceed.  That’s kind of the point.

Let’s not forget, though, that getting to lift-off for this industry did require a national consensus, and long, serious government action.  We should praise Musk, and praise the virtues of private enterprise, but that does not require us to despise government’s role in this.  Government’s involvement in spaceflight was not initially a binding restraint: government, instead, was the founding source of the technology that Musk and others have received.  For good reasons and bad---to put a man on the moon in the sixties, or to launch rocket-bombs at London in the forties---governments gave birth this cluster of technologies, and nurtured it through all the hard, expensive years when it could not stand on its own.  Now, finally, it has reached maturity, and we hope it can move out.  It may still need some help, some initial sustaining government support as the largest early customer, but finally, perhaps, it is robust enough for private enterprise to take it on.  But as a rough comparison of public to private contributions to this, Elon Musk invested approximately $100 million, other investors about the same amount, and NASA has invested something like $500 million in SpaceX (see Wikipedia on SpaceX funding here).  But NASA has spent something like $790 Billion (current dollars) in the last 50 years to get here (Wikipedia on NASA funding here). 

We can’t know whether that long government-led incubation was a root requirement, without which space flight would never have happened.  Perhaps it would have---after another millennium or two.  But this is one of government’s best roles: incubating research and development that is so long term or so large scale that private enterprise either can’t or won’t pursue it on its own.  The end result of this activity by government is not just the fulfillment of some motivating national goal.   It’s not even the laudable goal of advancing science.   The real, long-term result of the moon landings and the mars missions and all the rest was SpaceX.  Not SpaceX specifically, but the possibility of SpaceX and of all of the others that will swarm after it, the possibility of one or many industries that will employ many millions of people.   

And as someone who worked at NASA in the 1960s, very briefly and at an invisibly low level, I can tell you that we knew that.  Did you think we were just trying to give Alan Shepard the opportunity to hit a golf ball on the moon??  We were creating the human future.  We were establishing the foundations on which vast future industries would flourish long after the moon landings were over.  We knew that from the start.