How the success of Blue Origins might mean that a new space race is actually open.
I forget who said that “all politics are local,” a sentiment I don’t entirely agree with, but I do think that space flight is inherently global and inescapably political. Maybe it shouldn’t be so much of the later.
NASA, with the might and resources of the United States government, was the only organization in the world that could have gotten us to the moon in 1969. It’s laughable to think that private companies could have, or should have given it a go. Space has been a boon to civilization, but our exploration of the moon was a pioneering adventure plain and simple. And it was an expensive one, at that. Then again, one might argue that the photographs Apollo astronauts took of the earth from the surface of the moon were worth the price of the entire program. Perspective is a powerful thing.
But shortly after the Apollo moon missions the space program seemed to lose its hold on the collective American imagination. The Space Shuttle program helped revive it, true, but even then it was a program that was phenomenally expensive and wasteful, not to mention the horrific loss of life with the disasters of Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003. Risk is part and parcel of space travel, and astronauts to a one will tell you that they understand and accept that. It’s a remarkable thing about astronauts and test pilots, and one might argue, about a lot of regular pilots, too.
Even before the demise of the Space Shuttle program, NASA was exploring ways to involve private companies in promoting space flight. Sir Richard Branson teamed with Burt Rutan and Scaled Composites more than a decade ago to get into the game, and their progress has been remarkable, if not without tragedy of its own.
And on Tuesday Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origins space program team gave us all cause to cheer, when they conducted a successful launch and recovery of a rocket and the capsule. The remarkable thing, and you probably know this already, is that the Blue Origins team recovered not only the capsule, which made a giant poof of smoke upon landing under parachutes in the desert of West Texas, but the booster rocket, too, which brought itself back in for a safe landing back on its pad. It was ready to fill the tanks and go flying again.
The efficiency and innovation of Virgin Galactic and Blue Origins, along with other private firms in the space game, is compelling evidence that not only is government not always the answer but maybe they come up with wrong answers.
There’s no questioning the success of the Gemini and Apollo programs, unless you’re one of those kooks who thinks all the moon footage was shot on a Hollywood sound stage, but there’s also no question that the availability of essentially unlimited resources can work against coming up with the best answers to a problem. Why didn’t NASA have its booster rockets fly home on their own? Well, for one, it didn’t have the technology, but I’d argue, for two, that even if it had, there are not the same drivers for innovation that private concerns have. I’m guessing that more than few corporate honchos fall asleep at night dreaming about the goodies they could mine in the asteroid belt.
And space is still a place of glamour and mystery, which has to be a big part of the allure for private firms, especially ones headed by charismatic personalities who live to make big ideas come true, or if not, then at least try out the biggest ones before they die. There’s something essentially American in that, which we can justifiably take some pride in. After all, we invented aviation and won the space race. So who knows, maybe the new space race is only now getting started.