Capitalism in orbit
SpaceX’s May 30 launch of the SpaceX Demo-2 spacecraft carrying two American astronauts to dock with the International Space Station was a first in many ways.
Private contractors have built nearly everything for the U.S. space program, and we’ve paid other nations – Russia — to carry crew and cargo for us. But the Dragon 2 launch was different. It was a private sector affair. Elon Musk was in charge, not Uncle Sam. As one reporter observed, “It was a SpaceX mission – NASA was just a customer.”
This has been a long time coming. In the second term of the Reagan administration, Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige, Jr. suggested that the Federal government should get out of the trucking business. A key component of President Reagan’s government shrinking plan was to contract with private sector purveyors of goods and services wherever possible, instead of having the government take care of everything.
The trucking business Secretary Baldrige was talking about was in space. Rather than have NASA order and launch rockets (built to their specifications under contract by the likes of Lockheed, Boeing and Martin Marietta), why not just buy the launch and let private sector companies compete and figure out the best way to do it? Especially where — as was just beginning at the time — so many launches were for commercial payloads, like communications satellites, why should the government preempt the private sector in providing that service?
Baldrige’s aim was to get the government out of the way so that a private sector space industry could blossom. Here we are, 33 years later, with Elon Musk’s SpaceX launch.
Private enterprise in space has always captivated our imagination. In Star Trek VIII: First Contact, the Enterprise crew travels back in time to April 5, 2063 to lend a hand to Zefram Cochrane, warp drive pioneer and thwart the collectivist Borg. This was necessary because our future friends — the Vulcans — would have deemed us savages beneath notice had we not had the velocity to pique their interest.
Cochrane’s no government bureaucrat and no hero (in his own mind). He’s in it for the money and doesn’t mind saying so. He’s a flawed human being, but also an obsessive visionary (sound familiar?). But his jack-leg, DIY rocket operation off in the woods somewhere is what gets Earth noticed by the cool and mighty Vulcans. Warp drive isn’t a government product. The point is: even in our imaginations we have faith in private initiative to achieve history-changing results.
Of course, nothing happens in a vacuum. SpaceX had the benefit of Cape Canaveral’s launch pad. The project wouldn’t have happened if the U.S. government were not a quintuple-plus, super-platinum-grade paying customer. But as the “Fifth Commandment of Capitalism” reminds us, it is part of the government’s legitimate role to support (without monopolizing) research and development that benefits the nation. The space program has brought us a whole lot more than Tang. Plus, as we’ve just been reminded, it’s best not to put all of one’s reliance on overseas sources, for anything. SpaceX frees us from captivity to Russian rockets.
So, with this outstanding showing by the private sector, can we say the U.S. space program is back on Trek?
Adam Smith advocated three elements to bring about universal prosperity: enlightened self-interest, where thrift and industry lead to mutually rewarding exchange; limited government to provide for the common defense, education and infrastructure, and to uphold the rule of law; and a market economy supported by solid currency. Smith believed these could produce universal opulence — a reality in the fictional Star Trek universe, an aspiration in ours. But hey, life imitates Star Trek. Just ask Siri or Alexa.
The Vulcan greeting echoes Adam Smith: Live long and prosper.
Betsy Dorminey is a partner at Lawson Steckel Schneider & Stine PC in Atlanta. She is also an entrepreneur in Vermont. Her columns have appeared in American Spectator, Western Journal, the Jacksonville Journal-Courier