Culture

Elon Musk: A Revolution in Space Flight

(Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty)

Fractured and divided as we are, on one thing we can agree: Twenty-fifteen was a miserable year. The only cheer was provided by Lincoln Chafee and the Pluto flyby (two separate phenomena), as well as one seminal aeronautical breakthrough.

On December 21, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, after launching eleven satellites into orbit, returned its 15-story booster rocket, upright and intact, to a landing pad at Cape Canaveral. That’s a $60 million mountain of machinery — recovered. (The traditional booster rocket either burns up or disappears into some ocean.)

The reusable rocket has arrived. Arguably, it arrived a month earlier when Blue Origin, a privately owned outfit created by Jeff Bezos (Amazon CEO and owner of the Washington Post) launched and landed its own booster rocket, albeit for a suborbital flight. But whether you attribute priority to Musk or Bezos, the two events together mark the inauguration of a new era in space flight.

Musk predicts that the reusable rocket will reduce the cost of accessing space a hundredfold. This depends, of course, on whether the wear and tear and stresses of the launch make the refurbishing prohibitively expensive. Assuming it’s not, and assuming Musk is even 10 percent right, reusability revolutionizes the economics of space flight.

Which both democratizes and commercializes it. Which means space travel has now slipped the surly bonds of government — presidents, Congress, NASA bureaucracies. Its future will now be driven far more by a competitive marketplace with its multiplicity of independent actors, including deeply motivated, financially savvy, and visionary entrepreneurs.

Space travel has now slipped the surly bonds of government — presidents, Congress, NASA bureaucracies.

To be sure, the enterprise is not entirely free of government. After all, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket landed on a Cape Canaveral pad formerly used to launch Air Force Atlas rockets. Moreover, initial financing for these ventures already depends in part on NASA contracts, such as resupplying the space station.

That, however, is not much different from the growth of aviation a century ago. It hardly lived off air-show tickets or Channel-crossing prize money. What really propelled the infant industry was government contracts, for useful things such as mail — and bomb — delivery.

#share#The first and most visible consequence of the new entrepreneurial era will be restoring America as a space-faring nation. Yes, I know we do spectacular robotic explorations. But our ability to toss humans into space disappeared when NASA retired the space shuttle — without a replacement.

To get an astronaut into just low Earth orbit, therefore, we have to hitch a ride on Russia’s Soyuz with its 1960s technology. At $82 million a pop. Yet, today, two private companies already have contracts with NASA to send astronauts to the space station as soon as 2017.

RELATED: Americans in Space

The real prize, however, lies beyond Earth orbit. By now, everyone realizes that the space station was a colossal mistake, a white elephant in search of a mission. Its main contribution is to study the biological effects of long-term weightlessness. But we could have done that in Skylab, a modest space station that our political betters decided four decades ago to abandon.

With increasing privatization, such decisions will no longer be exclusively Washington’s. When President Obama came into office, the plan was to return to the moon by 2020. A year later, he decided we should go to an asteroid instead. Why? Who knows.

Future directions are being set by private companies with growing technical experience and competing visions.

Today, future directions are being set by private companies with growing technical experience and competing visions. Musk is fixated on colonizing Mars, Bezos on seeing “millions of people living and working in space,” and Richard Branson on space tourism by way of Virgin Galactic (he has already sold 700 tickets to ride at $250,000 each). And Moon Express, another private enterprise, is not even interested in hurling about clumsy, air-breathing humans. It is bent on robotic mining expeditions to the Moon. My personal preference is a permanent manned moon base, which would probably already exist had our politicians not decided to abandon the Moon in the early 1970s.

We have no idea which plan is more likely to succeed and flourish. But the beauty of privatization is that we don’t get just one shot at it. Our trajectory in space will now be the work of a functioning market of both ideas and commerce. It no longer will hinge on the whims of only tangentially interested politicians.

Space has now entered the era of the Teslas, the Edisons, and the Wright Brothers. From now on, they will be doing more and more of the driving. Which means we are actually — finally — going somewhere again.

— Charles Krauthammer is a nationally syndicated columnist. © 2015 The Washington Post Writers Group

 

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

ABC Chief Political Analyst: GOP Rep. Stefanik a ‘Perfect Example’ of the Failures of Electing Someone ‘Because They Are a Woman’

Matthew Dowd, chief political analyst for ABC News, suggested that Representative Elise Stefanik (R., N.Y.) was elected due to her gender after taking issue with Stefanik's line of questioning during the first public impeachment hearing on Wednesday. “Elise Stefanik is a perfect example of why just electing ... Read More
White House

Trump vs. the ‘Policy Community’

When it comes to Russia, I am with what Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman calls the American “policy community.” Vindman, of course, is one of the House Democrats’ star impeachment witnesses. His haughtiness in proclaiming the policy community and his membership in it grates, throughout his 340-page ... Read More
Law & the Courts

DACA’s Day in Court

When President Obama unilaterally changed immigration policy after repeatedly and correctly insisting that he lacked the constitutional power to do it, he said that congressional inaction had forced his hand. In the case of his first major unilateral move — “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals,” which ... Read More
White House

Impeachment and the Broken Truce

The contradiction at the center of American politics in Anno Domini 2019 is this: The ruling class does not rule. The impeachment dog-and-pony show in Washington this week is not about how Donald Trump has comported himself as president (grotesquely) any more than early convulsions were about refreshed ... Read More
Books

A Preposterous Review

A   Georgetown University professor named Charles King has reviewed my new book The Case for Nationalism for Foreign Affairs, and his review is a train wreck. It is worth dwelling on, not only because the review contains most of the lines of attack against my book, but because it is extraordinarily shoddy and ... Read More