SpaceX Demo-2 Crew Walkout at Kennedy Space Center
Twenty years from now, Elon Musks spectacular launch of his Crew Dragon capsule yesterday will barely merit a single page in a history of the modern space era. Notwithstanding his sophomoric antics and questionable judgement that sometimes casts doubt on his ability to be a responsible CEO, we eagerly anticipate more from him and his company SpaceX in the coming years. Even Neil Armstrong, the enduring icon of the first space race and the most famous naysayer of NASAs Commercial Crew Program, would probably reluctantly admit that Elon's unrelenting passion, talent, and drive will get him to his ultimate destinationMars.
Yesterdays remarkable achievement, including the picture-perfect landing of the Falcon 9 rocket for reuse, should also be remembered as the mic drop moment proving the superiority of a free market space industry. When the last of the doubting policymakers in Washington finally wake up to the deeper meaning of SpaceXs most recent victory, the full weight of the American free market economy will be unleashed to enable new paths for NASA, the U.S. Space Force and open new business areas for the growing commercial space industry. To do so, these leaders will have to reinterpret two enduring truths in addition to embracing two new ones.
Only in America can something like this happen. There are plenty of space companies scattered around the world, but their government created most of them in some fashion. Yet when someone has a bold new idea to change the world, whether its an Afrikaner like Elon Musk or an expat Brit like Sir Richard Branson, they come to America to make their dreams reality. Ensuring leaders with hunger and drive they have the liberty to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams is the uniquely American answer to almost everything. It was our answer to the space doldrums we were in a decade agoshuttle aging out, Russia leading the world in manned spaceflightand it worked.
One person with a vision (and help) can change history. In fact, for better and for worse, it is often the only thing that ever does. Elon certainly didnt accomplish this latest feat alone, but it would not exist without his vision, initiative and perseverance. No government committee instructed its creationhe was the spearhead. Talking about great things is what philosophers and government officials do; doing great things is what engineers do every dayand were all glad that its finally being recognized again. Heck, Elon never even had any formal business training and wasnt considered a real CEO before SpaceX.
As the hundreds of private space companies around the world are reinvigorated by and learn from yesterdays events, they will further revolutionize the rest of the space economy in the coming decades. Two new lessons that culminated in yesterdays success have been debated for the last decade and have now been demonstrated to be true.
The complex and often incomprehensible government-led space industry is no longer impervious to the benefits of private commercial companies. Elons bold spirit and resourceful instincts in Washington have paved a path for the next 50 years of likeminded engineersif our government will encourage them to compete. Real competition does reveal the better athlete, even for the most ambitious endeavors man has ever undertaken, like human space travel. Only time will tell when Boeing will finish this race and we are all still cheering for them. But to all of the Pentagon naysayers who said ten years ago he wouldnt last another six months, Elon has proven them wrong time and time again. SpaceX, the undisputed king of commercial contracts, has won this latest race with competitive fixed price contracts combined with private capital to develop a breathtaking American capability.
The space sector of the U.S. economy no longer needs a maternal government bureaucracy to coddle, raise, praise and protect it. Perhaps the most important takeaway of yesterdays victory is positive proof that the American space economy can finally stand on its own two feet. When a company is independently founded and exists for the express purpose of achieving its own goals, it began with enough expertise to conceive, develop, produce or operate its product or service. What it doesnt initially have, it acquires over time through growth and experience.
Into the future, the government must more aggressively seek to procure goods or services that are also offered by commercial companies. As it does this, it should consider competing in much the same way businesses buy other capital equipment: with concise, performance-oriented work statements, clear delivery timelines and fixed price bids. If these companies raison dtre is to thrive, their ambition will propel them to even greater heights, perhaps greater than they imagined. We are long overdue to smile kindly at last centurys necessary model of enticing the ambivalent with cost-plus contracts but look to a future of even greater promise. Much like what was done with the computer and communication industries before it, we must now shift from a government policy of coddling to one that forges independence and resilience through commercial competition and collaboration.
Wisdom comes from experience and the most valuable experience comes from failure. To learn and become wise, our government must continue to dare the bold to reach a little beyond their current grasp much like Elon Musk has. By nourishing these entrepreneurial mavericks and scoring better value for the taxpayer, we will continue expanding the boundary of human advancement. Todays history making endeavor, SpaceXs privately owned and operated rocket and spaceship successfully launching astronauts into Earths orbit, should remind all of us whats possible by the private sector. And what is that? Virtually everything.
There is still ample reason to worry about Americas competitiveness in the second Space Race, but clearly it's not for the reasons that Neil Armstrong worried about. NASAs SpaceX experiment definitively proves that even with imperfect corporate leadership and significant development risk, the cost-plus contracting method with associated government nannying, is not always necessary and in fact may be counterproductive to rapid progress. For all of the armchair rocket scientists in the Pentagon who said SpaceX wouldnt last another six months, this certainly proves each and every one of them wrong. A competitive, highly competent private space industry led by hundreds of companies like SpaceX ten years ago is achieving the unthinkable and will continue to raise the bar on each other.
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