On August 2nd, two American astronauts return to Earth. Their launch was the first from the US in 10 years. It wasn’t NASA that sent them into space. NASA would still be filling out forms and running up costs. It was Elon Musk‘s SpaceX that did it. Private enterprise makes good things possible.
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“Musk had not only done something that it was … thought that only the governments or superpowers could do—he had done things that they thought they couldn’t do,” says aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin, author of The Case for Space.
But wait: NASA sent astronauts to the moon. Why couldn’t they do what SpaceX did?
Because after that success, they became just another bureaucratic government agency.
Zubrin explains, “When you don’t have a truly commanding purpose, the purpose of the program becomes to supply money to various suppliers.”
Like Lockheed Martin, where Zubrin worked and where he discovered a way for a rocket to carry twice as much weight.
When he pitched it to management, they responded, “Look, if the Air Force wants us to improve the Titan, they’ll pay us to do it,” says Zubrin.
NASA paid the contractor’s development costs, then added 10% percent profit. The more projects cost, the bigger the profit. So innovation was discouraged by how NASA paid most contractors.
“You have good people engaged in cost maximization,” says Elon Musk. “You just gave them an incentive to do that.”
High costs were okay at NASA, as long as spaceships were assembled in many congressmen’s districts.
“NASA is a very large job program,” aerospace lawyer James Dunstan explains, “By spreading its centers across the country, NASA can get more support from more different congressmen.”
Fortunately, now private competitors are finding better and cheaper ways to launch astronauts into space.
Musk’s SpaceX invented rocket boosters that land themselves. NASA dropped theirs into oceans.
“If you had to get a new plane everytime you flew somewhere … very few people could afford to fly,” explains Musk.
His next spacecraft, Starship, is meant to take people to Mars and back.
Let’s celebrate the entrepreneurs who break government’s old rules.