Today SpaceX became the first private company to launch a spacecraft, its Dragon capsule, into orbit and berth it with the International Space Station. This is not only a triumph for Elon Musk, the company’s founder and visionary, and his team. It also is a giant step toward a future in which space is open to all humanity through the efforts of the private sector.
Space is a place, not just a government program—a place for science, research, industry, tourism, exploration, settlement, and every form of human endeavor. Yet for half a century transportation into space and most other activities has been the province of governments. The dynamism of entrepreneurs in a free market offering goods and services—the dynamism that produced the communications and information revolutions with personal computers, the Internet, and smart phones—didn’t occur. Tangles of government regulations effectively kept private providers chained to this planet.
NASA achieved a great human and technological triumph by landing astronauts on the Moon. But the price was astronomical and unsustainable. NASA’s Space Shuttle was supposed to bring the costs of access to orbit down. In fact, costs went up, with each launch consuming as much as $1 billion in taxpayer money. The station was proposed in the mid-1980s at a cost of about $8 billion with projected completion a decade later. After redesigns and downsizings, the station was only completed recently, and with a nearly $100 billion price tag.
Governments simply can’t commercialize goods and services—that is, bring costs down and quality up. Only private entrepreneurs in free markets can do that.
In the past decade even the federal government has acknowledged this. It has been eliminating many—though not all—regulatory barriers to commercial space activity. And the government has started to be a consumer of space services rather than a provider. NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program sought to contract with a private company for access to orbit. SpaceX was chosen as the supplier, and has now proven that a private company can do what it was thought only a government was capable of.
Other private firms are opening space as well. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic will soon offer suborbital flights to paying customers. As private companies like SpaceX begin to offer human flights to orbit, Bigelow Aerospace will orbit private habitat modules at a fraction of the cost of the government station. In the end, there will be no need for a NASA.
Today we celebrate the achievement of SpaceX and look to the spirit of entrepreneurs to make us a spacefaring civilization!
Hudgins is director of advocacy for The Atlas Society, which will feature SpaceX Director of Advanced Projects Steve Davis at its Atlas Summit, June 29-July 1.
For further reading:
Edward Hudgins, editor, Space: The Free-Market Frontier . Cato Institute, 2002.
Edward Hudgins, " When We Walked on the Moon ." July 17, 2009.
Edward Hudgins, " The Spiritual Significance of Mars ." August 12, 2003.