It’s long past time we dealt with the anti-business mindset that has permeated the press, even the allegedly, center-right network, FOX news. This past Wednesday FOX News was running continuous coverage of the ultimately scrubbed Space-X manned launch to the U.S.funded International Space Station. This would have been the first time since 2012 that these United States were able to put an Astronaut in orbit with our own hardware. Since then, we have had to hitch a ride with and pay our oh-so-good friends, the Russians, for the privilege.
Until the mission was postponed due to weather, there was an air of excitement and pride as once again, Americans would be back in space and masters of our own destiny. The host, Neil Cavuto, brought in a long line of current and former Astronauts, Flight Directors, and the NASA historian—notables such as retired Astronaut Gene Cernan, the last human being to walk on the surface of the Moon.** Each guest expressed fulsome pride and optimism about America’s future in space.
Yet it seemed that with each one, Cavuto had to throw cold water on the excitement. With no less than 5 of his guests, he insisted on asking, “What do you think about private companies taking the lead in space flight?” His tone and tenor implied that this was a bad thing—something wrong. At first blush and because he does look pretty young on the air, I thought he just might not be aware of the history of the private sector in aviation and space. Turns out, he’s three months older than I am.
Well, Mr. Cavuto, private enterprise has been at the forefront of aviation since its beginnings here in these United States. When the Wright Brothers took their famous flight, they were not employees of the Federal Government. Robert Goddard, long looked at as one of the pioneers of American rocketry, was a private citizen, funded mostly by private organizations. Throughout the rise of first aviation and then rocketry, private citizens, either alone or in private companies, were leading the charge on new discoveries and technological innovation.
One major exception to this, was when NACA/NASA was given the mission to beat the Soviets into space and thence to the Moon. Indeed, many of the researchers and designers were federal employees. But that was a crash program and itself an aberration.
One tool that enabled this private sector innovation was the use of prize money or private sponsorships. In aviation, prize money, either from private donations or even sometimes from government, was quite commonly used to incentivize the private sector to solve a technological problem. Here is a clip from the December 1947 issue of Flying Magazine. Note the public-private partnership and use of prize money.
Screenshot, December 1947 Flying Magazine, from Google Books
The former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich has long advocated for re-engagement of this approach to our return to space. I remember him advocating for a “prize approach” in order to incentivize the private sector to take some chances on this type of commercial-technological development. One specific thing he has been promoting is a $2 billion prize award for the company or consortium that could return the United States to the Moon and establish a base there. I’ll have more on the Moon Base concept in a later piece.
If you note the tone of the article above, it evinces the same condescending, snotty attitude towards private innovation and exploration that I heard from Mr. Cavuto Wednesday. It implies that the only entity that can be entrusted with space exploration is the Federal Government. This runs absolutely contrary to history.
Our education system is sadly failing our citizens. The fact that one of the lead anchors on an allegedly center-right news organization looks at a privately-led exploration effort in space and considers that not only some sort of aberration, but implies that there is something wrong with it, bothers me. It’s an insult to explorers and innovators like Drake, Cook, Shackleton, Goddard, Frank, and Orville Wright, to name but a few. Mr. Cavuto, it’s NASA that is the aberration, not Space-X.
** Gene Cernan passed away in 2017. His comments were via an old video.