X Close

Step aside NASA, Elon Musk is in charge now

Rocket man. Credit: Getty

September 6, 2022 - 4:45pm

NASA’s recent decision to scrub their big moon flight — with rescheduling weeks away — is yet another illustration of how this once mighty federal agency has lost its way. It is already 2022 and the space agency has failed to send another person on the moon for a half century. It is far from tackling the more critical project of visiting Mars.

So with NASA locked in bureaucracy, the momentum has shifted to private industry, which increasingly dominates the burgeoning space industry. Here there is a parallel with what historian J. H. Parry called the “Age of Reconnaissance” in which the initial moves for the creation of the modern world economy were state-sponsored, but the development of the global shipping and the establishment of mercantile colonies was private. Many of the boldest explorers of that era were figures like Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake, privateers seeking profits as well as personal glory.

We are now entering the “Commercial Space Age”, replacing the era of state-led exploration. Today exploration is being driven by billionaires like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, and a host of young companies like Space X, Relativity Space, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and Rocket Lab, which recently announced a mission to explore the gases of Venus.

Government is still a large player in countries as diverse as India, Japan, Russia and Israel. China, which is considering a mile-long spaceship, will not likely allow entrepreneurs to lead its dreams of a galactic mandarinate. But in the West, the drive will not be led to NASA, suffers from what author and space expert Rand Simberg notes calls “risk aversion”.

The reasons for the rise of privateers resonates with that of the sea-going privateers — the lure of lucre. The government’s Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) estimates that the space industry contributes approximately $200 billion to the U.S. economy and employs 354,000 people today. New research sees that number growing substantially, and projects the global space economy will be worth $1.0 trillion by 2040. This unscripted opportunity, of course, can expect opposition from the green progressives who dub it just a reflection of capitalism’s flawed obsession with growth.

The private shift has been tracked in a recent report from The Space Foundation which noted that about 90% of more than 1,000 spacecraft launched this year have been backed by commercial firms — most notably the hundreds of Starlink internet satellites launched by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, accounting for upwards of 60% of all new commercial rocket launches. In addition, private sector innovation and for-profit companies made 2021 the best year for space growth in decades. As of now, Space X is the only company with rockets that could accommodate long-distance space travel by humans.

Of course, not everything is the same. The new space privateers are not looking for gold, slaves, codfish or tobacco, but the profitability of launching telecommunications satellites, and mining asteroids, as the Japanese have already done in a pilot project, as well as the use of solar reflectors to bring energy to earth. These firms may help create a better future for humanity, but their obsessions, some warn, are more materialistic than scientific, focused on personal profits than serving an altruistic “Federation”. History is about to enter not a post-material Golden Age, but a new era of capitalist expansion, with all the promise and dangers that that has always created.

Joel Kotkin is the Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and author, most recently, of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class (Encounter)


Join the discussion

Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber

To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Notify of

Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Steve Elliott
Steve Elliott
1 year ago

The rational me thinks that sending people to mars is a stupid and ridiculous idea but for the boy inside me who was brought up on Dan Dare, Sputnik, Gargarin, Mercury, Gemini and Apollo it’s just fantastic, great and exciting. It brings back a strong sense of optimism for the future which we had in the 60’s but seem to have lost completely after 2001.
I have mixed feelings about Elon Musk. I suspect he’s a bit of a p***k but I admire him because his companies make actual useful things rather than abstract financial instruments or social media websites and you’ve got to admire someone with the balls to start his own space program and make it work. Watching his spaceship landing back on the launchpad was really something. He’s like the Hans Solo of today. You can imagine him fighting over some asteroid made of gold. It’s Boys Own stuff.
I do have one grumble with him though. He sends up far too many satellites. As an amateur astronomer you can hardly look up at night without one of his crossing the field.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Elliott
Brian Kullman
Brian Kullman
1 year ago

I came of age during the race to the moon. The nation was riveted by the sheer audacity of the effort and NASA’s ability to coordinate a giant team of scientists and engineers in both the public and private sectors to a shared goal.

Nothing like that exists today. NASA, like any government agency, has become a bureaucracy in search of a mission (aka “funding”) that while not capturing the public’s fancy will at least capture Congressional funding.

To be blunt: does anyone think the best and brightest of our scientists and engineers are flocking to the government’s space program? Musk and Bezos correctly determined that a private sector effort to commercialize space (mostly by launching satellites for pay) could out-compete a lifeless bureaucracy and its legacy “cost-plus” aerospace contractors.

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
1 year ago

So! we are going to catch some of the Sun’s ‘rays’ which might otherwise miss the Earth and send it down in a concentrated beam to a receiver on Earth. That will be an increase in Insolation which will cause, at the very least, local warming and possible changes in the weather pattern. I’m not an AGW nut but to leave this in the hands of Capitalists (there won’t just be one) will lead to all sorts of problms. Beam control – What happens if the control of this concentrated power fails and cuts a smoking groove through a major conurbation, especially one in a not-to-friendly nation. Ditto damaged/destroyed satellites of other nations. Even worse – your own countries people or equipment. This is not sc-fi any more – it’s all possible with modern stuff – they’re charging EVs without plugs already but very strong laws need to be enacted and then rigidly enforced. ‘Capitalists’ won’t like that at all and will find ways around them so safety will eventually be left in the hands of, say, Fire & Rescue Services who will probably not be given sufficient powers to control said ‘Capitalists’ or their equipment-run-amok. I have some admiraton for Elon Musk’s modern grit and determination in the ‘Space Race’ but not his littering of Lower orbits with thousands of bits of future junk which will eventually land on our heads, make it more dangerous to get into higher orbits and cause earthbound astronomers to mutter dark words into their coffee. Permission was not asked or given by the competant authority (ITU) for this leo traffic jam. Who now will take charge of near-earth space.
ITU allocates frequencies, etc, in collaboration with national and regional authorities (UK’s is Ofcom. FCC for the USA)

michael wikan
michael wikan
1 year ago
Reply to  Doug Pingel

Um, no. It’s not like a giant death ray. Nothing to worry about, no warming effects. Also, no, that won’t land on your head. Starlinks burn up before reaching the ground. These are all baseless worries