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Waste of a Space Race?

It seems like every time you look to the sky another billionaire is heading for the stars. There is a clear renewal of space travel happening—not by two superpower nations competing against each other. Rather, it is private innovators who are leading the charge.

Over the past decade there has been an enormous shift in the space industry. In 2006, NASA took the extraordinary step of investing in private enterprises, to carry out future missions to the International Space Station. NASA’s current budget reflects the growing partnership between private and government actors. Just from 2020 to 2021 the budget for commercial Low Earth Orbit (LEO) development has shot up from $15 million to $150 million.

The status quo of strictly government run space programs was and is slowly coming to an end.

An opportunity for commercial development of space has naturally led to a growing number of competing companies. Three of these eager companies—SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic—are led by some of the world’s wealthiest entrepreneurs. Lots of controversy surround the decisions of these businesses to pour billions of dollars into going to space with critics suggesting it is waste of time and money. However, trying to hinder exploration may be more hurtful to society in the long run.

There are a few realities that exist when we talk about space. For one, it is becoming an area of significance in future conflicts. As more satellites are launched into orbit, the contested territory holds national security implications if the U.S. were to withdrawal from space ambitions. In other words, someone will be leading the next age in space. Why not give the opportunity to private companies, who often are more efficient and agile?

By allowing private companies to lead the continued foray into space, the U.S. government is benefitting the taxpayer. Private corporations that are competing are not bound by heavy government regulation and bureaucracy. They are free to develop and adjust as they see necessary to make the most efficient and effective product possible. Jeff DeWit, former chief financial officer of NASA, commented “The commercial sector figured out these uses that the government never would have figured out, and they put their own satellites up there. The cost came down a lot, and the uses went up a lot.”

Slow ineffective government projects are going to cost taxpayers billions more in the long run unless there is an influx of market competition to lower prices and increase quality. NASA’s lunar project had a 10.7 billion dollar budget and is running years behind with a nothing to show except an exceeded budget. The result is they have outsourced the project to private companies to finish the job the government could not—a key example.

Furthermore, there is a strong relationship between innovation and economic growth. Innovative ideas that are allowed to flourish help improve society at an aggregate scale. Simply put, a society that is conducive to innovation and creativity will lead to innovation and creativity.

Thus, setting the framework for entrepreneurs to take risks and develop their ideas is exactly how you can read this article on your phone or computer with a few clicks. Indeed, market innovation has led to advancements in technology, medicine, literature, art, music, and so forth.

In the end, the debate is not whether billionaires should pay their fair share in taxes or engage in more philanthropic activity. It’s about whether or not a society should allow its best and brightest to engage in innovative activity that will generate opportunity, promote flourishing, and help solve societal ills. Many think that these billionaires are simply engaging in a “bucket list” activity that will hurt the populace. Unfortunately, those thoughts are shortsighted. Without true innovators, we may not find the answers to tomorrow’s crises.