The Future of Space Exploration Depends on the Private Sector

This piece by Brandon J. Weichert appeared in The National Review

NASA may not like the competition, but it’s how we’ll beat China in the new space race.

As Jeff Bezos, the wealthiest man on the planet, readies to launch himself into space aboard one of his own rockets, the world is watching the birth of a new dawn in space. Previously, America relied on its government agency, NASA, to propel it to the cosmos during the last space race with the Soviet Union. Today, America’s greatest hopes are with its private sector.

Jeff Bezos is not engaging in such risky behavior simply because he’s an adrenaline junky. No, he’s launching himself into orbit because his Blue Origins is in a titanic struggle with Elon Musk’s SpaceX — and Bezos’s firm is losing.

Whatever happens, the American people will benefit from the competition that is shaping up between America’s space entrepreneurs. This has always been how innovation occurs: through the dynamic, often cutthroat competition between actors in the private sector. While money is their ultimate prize, fame and fortune are also alluring temptations to make men like Musk and Bezos risk much of their wealth to change the world.

The private space race among these entrepreneurs is part of a far more important marathonbetween Red China and the United States. Whichever nation wins the new space race will determine the future of the earth below.

Consider this: Since winning its initial contracts to launch sensitive U.S. military satellites into orbit, SpaceX has lowered the cost of military satellite launches on taxpayers by “over a million dollars less” than what bigger defense contractors can do. Elon Musk is convinced that he can bring these costs down even more, thanks to his reusable Falcon 9 rocket.

The competition between the private space start-ups is fierce — just as the competition between Edison and Westinghouse was — but the upshot is ultimately greater innovation and lower costs for you and me. In fact, Elon Musk insists that if NASA gives SpaceX the contract for building the Human Landing System for the Artemis mission, NASA would return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024 — four years before NASA believes it will do so. (Incidentally, 2024 is also when China anticipates having a functional base on the moon’s southern pole.)

Whereas China has an all-of-society approach to its space race with the United States, Washington has yet to fully galvanize the country in the way that John F. Kennedy rallied America to wage — and win — the space race in the Cold War. America’s private sector, therefore, is the silver bullet against China’s quest for total space dominance. If left unrestricted by meddlesome Washington bureaucrats, these companies will ensure that the United States retains its overall competitive advantage over China — and all other challengers, for that matter.

Indeed, the next four years could prove decisive in who will be victorious.

Enter the newly minted NASA director, Bill Nelson, whose station at the agency has effectively poured cold water on the private sector’s ambitious space plans. “Space is not going to be the Wild West for billionaires or anyone else looking to blast off,” Nelson admonished an inquiring reporter.

Why not?

America’s actions during its western expansion created a dynamic and advanced nation that was well-positioned to dominate the world for the next century. Should we not attempt to emulate this in order to remain dominant in the next century?

More important, this is precisely how China treats space: as a new Wild West . . . but one in which Beijing’s forces will dominate. China takes a leap-without-looking approach to space development — everything that can be done to further its grand ambition of becoming the world’s most dominant power by 2049 will be done. Meanwhile, the Biden administration wants to prevent America’s greatest strength, the free market, from helping to beat its foremost geopolitical competitor.

Nelson’s comments are fundamentally at odds with America’s spirit and animating principles. Whatever one’s opinion about Bezos or Musk, the fact is that their private space companies are inspiring greater innovation today in the space sector after years of its being left in the sclerotic hands of the U.S. government.

Sensing that the federal government’s dominance of U.S. space policy is waning, the Biden administration would rather cede the strategic high ground of space to China than let wildcatting innovators do the hard work. Today, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) and NASA are contrivingnew ways for strangling the budding private space sector, just as it is taking flight.

Risk aversion is not how one innovates. Risk is what led Americans to the moon just 66 years after the Wright brothers flew their first airplane. A willingness for risk doesn’t exist today in the federal government — which is why the feds shouldn’t be running space policy.

The U.S. government should be partnering with the new space start-ups, not shunning them. The FAA should be automatically approving SpaceX launches, not stymying them. The federal government will not win space any more than it could win the West or build the locomotive. It takes strong-willed, brilliant individuals of a rare caliber to do that. All government can do is to give the resources and support to private-sector innovators and let them make history for us.

The next decade will decide who wins space. Let it be America — and let America’s dynamic start-ups win that race, not China’s state capitalism.

Be sure to get a copy of Brandon J. Weichert’s newest book, which Dennis Prager calls “Truly Important” TODAY:

Republic Book Publishers.

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