Accidents Happen and Space Is Hard
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"Space is hard."
It's refreshing to hear complex issues put in the simplest terms. That's what Planet Labs, an earth-imaging company that lost 26 satellites in the Antares rocket explosion Tuesday, said about the launch failure. "Space is hard."
The botched Antares launch was the first rocket failure since NASA turned to private industry to handle much of its space program. Orbital Sciences and Elon Musk's SpaceX received the bulk of the contracts. The Antares project was run by Orbital, and was designed to resupply the International Space Station.
Everyone should know space is hard, but the immediate reaction from some quarters was, prehaps predictably, more negative. Take the Associated Press: "The accident was sure to draw criticism over the space agency’s growing reliance on private U.S. companies in this post-shuttle era. NASA is paying billions of dollars to Orbital Sciences and the SpaceX company to make station deliveries, and it’s counting on SpaceX and Boeing to start flying U.S. astronauts to the orbiting lab as early as 2017."
So, according to AP, the launch of this rocket should somehow open up private enterprise to criticism. Government, after all, could do such a better job.
Um...really? The reason we are in a "post-shuttle era" is two-fold: First, because of tragic disasters, we were running out of shuttles to actually launch into space. Lives were lost in those failures, one need not be reminded. Odd that there wasn't a chorus about how government, in the form of NASA, was unable to handle space flight back then, or even back when there were other disasters and failures in our spaceflight program.
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Second, though, the reason NASA turned over much of its space duties to the private sector was that it had fallen behind technologically. Some folks like to blame budget cuts, but that's overly simplistic. The shuttle, for all its technological marvel when it was first launched, quickly became obsolete. It was, after all, a limited, near-earth vehicle, a kind of floating lab and delivery truck that couldn't get us too far.
And it was a very, very expensive program to maintain. NASA dumped tons of its budget into the shuttle program, which was its signature. Rather than diverting money when it became clear NASA's future was elsewhere, it doubled down on the shuttle, then complained when Congress wouldn't give it more money to make up for its poor planning.
Meanwhile, the private sector was getting it right. Companies like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences could build rockets more cheaply, pay the best employees more money, and give NASA a more fiscally responsible option by opening up the process to competitive bidding.
And these private companies could help re-establish the innovation, the marvel and the vision of what space has to offer. Elon Musk is a dreamer and a doer -- what we know as an entrepreneur. Many people dream of flying to space, but only entrepreneurs like Musk and Richard Branson put the best minds on the planet together to get us off the planet.
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Some people lament that we have lost our way since the space race of the 1960s. Indeed, there was something magical about the time, where a mix of national pride and a shame over Soviet advances led us to cheer on a government program that led us to dominate the USSR in the dome of heaven itself. You can have East Berlin. We've got the moon. Top that one, comrade.
But the decades-long decline of the U.S. government's space program doesn't mean that magic is gone. It's just moved to another wand. The entrepreneurial spirit that drives these programs -- the dreaming, the accomplishments of the seemingly impossible, the hacking, pivoting, disrupting and whatever startup buzzword you want to throw at it -- is alive, well and thriving. That profit is a key ingredient isn't something to be ashamed of. It is simply an evolution from that period in the 60s. What better way to punctuate our win over the Soviet Union than to show that our capitalist system can always do it better, no matter what "it" happens to be?
And failures are a part of this. Orbital Sciences has had failures in the past. SpaceX hasn't had a spotless record. Rockets will blow up. Indeed, more people will die as we get further and further into space. But every entrepreneur knows that failure is a part of innovation, of growth and of success. It is how businesses learn. It is welcomed by entrepreneurs, even as it is mocked and criticized by others.
Space is hard. The good news is, America's private companies, buoyed by its free markets, are up to the challenge. That's the Right Stuff needed today.