by Rod D. Martin
February 12, 2016
Elon Musk just announced he’s going to Mars within 10 years. This isn’t one of those “America is going to invent warp drive and defeat the Klingons within this decade” kind of announcements we’ve gotten from President after President throughout my lifetime. If Elon says it, he means it. And given his track record, he’ll do it.
That may sound crazy. We know that Apollo cost (in current dollars) $108 billion. I realize that seems trivial in an era where the Fed just prints money and the President runs up $1 trillion deficits without a thought (recall that in 2008, the proposed cost of TARP — $700 billion – was thought to be crippling; Obama has run up $10 trillion in debt since then, or half of all debt incurred by the United States since 1776). But it certainly wasn’t trivial in the 1960s, with a radically smaller economy and a dollar tied to gold. It’s not trivial to Elon either: its many times his entire net worth. And he doesn’t get to print money.
At best, going to Mars will likely be similar. And if NASA ever gets around to it (promises, promises) it will be.
But it won’t for Elon Musk. And here’s why.
As I described to you several weeks ago, SpaceX’s breakthrough in reusability is a revolution comparable to the invention of sail: it changes absolutely everything.
Most of the cost of a launch is in the first stage, which has to be built anew for every flight. It has always been this way; and indeed, the rockets NASA uses – sold expensively by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which have banded together in a joint venture called United Launch Alliance – are based on designs first created in the 1960s. An Atlas V launch costs $150 million, which is a heck of a lot of money; it’s also not greatly dissimilar to the cost a decade ago, a quarter century ago, or at the dawn of the space age.
SpaceX built and flew the first completely new rocket design since the 1960s. Elon started working on it even before we sold PayPal to eBay. Taking his relatively small share of the proceeds of that sale, he was flying cargo to the International Space Station within a decade, for half the cost of that Atlas V. Considering the resources he had available, that may count as a bigger achievement than walking on the Moon.
Elon’s reusable first stages take that cost savings and put them on steroids. SpaceX estimates that the cost of fuel for a Falcon 9 is about $200,000. Take out the cost of a new first stage every launch, and the cost drops from $70 million to as little as $700,000.
You read that right: Elon will soon be able to lift 214 times as much to space for the same money as one launch by NASA and ULA.
It’s amazing. It’s innovative. And the question is, why didn’t giants like Boeing, Lockheed Martin and the United States government do it decades ago?
They had the resources. Indeed, they had virtually unlimited resources compared to tiny SpaceX. So why have they been sending our tax dollars up in smoke?
This is the problem with socialism. And you should consider it well this week, when Bernie Sanders has just become the first capital-s Socialist to win a major party primary (beating Hillary by 22 points).
The cozy relationship between government and industry – that military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned of – stifles virtually all innovation. For decades, NASA and the Department of Defense have acted collectively as a sort of “single payer”; ULA has been all too happy to charge the price Congress would pay. That has set the price for everyone else. It is the Medicare/Medicaid model applied to space: some call it “crony capitalism,” but it’s really just socialism (or more precisely, fascism).
Worse still, when industry has sought to innovate, government has rebuffed it. Research and development costs money, and has no obvious immediate payoff. To the bean counters, that looks like “waste and fraud.” Generations of Congressmen and Senators, like William Proxmire (D-WI), have spent their careers cutting NASA budgets to the bone, stretching out existing programs (and thus greatly inflating their cost) and leaving little for R&D. In the process, NASA lost “the right stuff” and instead learned to be the spacefaring equivalent of Amtrak and the Postal Service.
As with Obamacare, all of this was intended to “save money.” It didn’t. All it did was deprive a generation or two of their birthright.
As-is, the cost of a ULA launch vs. the cost of a Falcon 9 equals twice as much bang for the buck from the scrappy innovator. How’s that for reducing waste, and also, for wasting 50% of what the taxpayers spent for years if not decades? That’s lost money, but it’s also lost weather satellites, lost GPS coverage, lost defense capabilities, and countless other lost things we may never know about.
Now, let’s think about that same comparison, but with reusable rockets instead. Let’s say NASA and its contractors could have invented something like what Elon’s done back in their heyday, and perhaps had it operational by 1980.
If we assume an average of 20 launches per year, times $150 million (and the Space Shuttle actually cost $450 million per launch), that’s $108 billion: the cost of another Apollo program.
Multiply the same number of launches by $700,000? It’s $504 million.
In other words, at the very least, government and “Big Space” robbed you of $107.5 billion. They could have gone to Mars on that. They could have bought 1,100 F-35 fighter jets for that, or 40 nuclear submarines, or 28 World Trade Centers, or the entire annual budget of the American Heart Association for 141 years.
But if that makes you angry, this will make you cry.
The real issue isn’t the lost money, but rather the lost opportunity. People crossed the Great Plains in Conestoga wagons. But they called that most fertile of lands “the Great American Desert” because with then-existing technology it was largely unusable. It took the transcontinental railroad to settle what became America’s breadbasket, to feed the growing cities, to tap the vast mineral wealth of a continent, to unite our nation from sea to shining sea. From a handful of settlements hugging the East Coast, cheap rail and steamboat transport spawned an era of opportunity and technological advance like nothing the world had ever seen and forged the greatest power on Earth.
And it happened in about the same time we’ve squandered since Sputnik.
Without markets, without competition, government not only “picks winners,” it exerts enormous force to maintain the status quo and stifle advance. This was true of the old aristocracies and monarchies for millennia before the American Revolution. It is every bit as true of the new Socialist aristocracies and monarchies of the last century.
Sanders is a Socialist, which means he wants to end private ownership, directly or indirectly. He may not run on a government takeover of Apple, but that’s what he believes in.
The nightmare of what two generations have “lost in space,” or perhaps lost-out in space, is a foretaste of Sanders’ vision: an era in which new cures, new frontiers and new breakthroughs will be fewer and fewer, while government blames “evil capitalists” for “profiteering” and “redistributes” what they have without a thought to what they exist to create.
It’s a shame Democrats don’t see that. But you and I must.