Landing on the moon was one of the great human achievements, a masterwork of ingenuity and discipline that we justly celebrate a half century later. Yet as Walter McDougall argued in his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Heavens and the Earth, the space race also marked a dangerous shift in the political and scientific cultures of America, one that moved technology out of the workshops of private inventors and into the realm of centralized government planning.
John F. Kennedy and his successors laid the foundation for what McDougall called “command innovation”: the idea that technological advancement is a public service for which the state should take primary responsibility.1 This mind-set eventually was applied to “research, education, economic fine-tuning, and social welfare in all its manifestations,” and it set the stage for the Great Society, the War on Poverty, and other massive federal undertakings that often were consciously modeled on the space program.2 In short, it established, in McDougall’s words, “a technocracy of politicians, arrogating to government the right to fix a national agenda and order the fabrication of techniques . . . for its fulfillment.”3
Among those who feared this development was President Dwight Eisenhower, who warned Americans in 1960 of a “military-industrial complex” that was transforming the scientific community—and the nation’s schools—into adjuncts of the state. Universities, writes McDougall, “inevitably compromised their role as detached centers of inquiry and were politicized by military and social involvement alike.”4 This meant subjecting themselves in unprecedented ways “to regulation, investigation, and coercion on matters of academic freedom.”5
The same phenomenon rippled out into countless other areas of civilian life with profound cultural consequences: Many Americans came to regard technical and cultural innovation as primarily the responsibility of government-funded, government-managed entities. The result was not only an immense growth in federal spending and regulation, but also the squeezing out of independent research and unconventional thinking that once had marked the distinctly American approach to invention.
Fortunately, recent years have seen a resurgence of confidence in privately run research, even toward that ultimate prize: space exploration.
Perhaps the first blow to the technocratic mentality came with personal computers, pioneered not by bureaucratic think tanks, but by college kids and hobbyists. Then in 2000, the private firm Celera beat the government-run Human Genome Project in mapping the human genome, despite the government’s almost decade-long head start.
Today, the leaders in space technology are not at NASA but at private firms such as Virgin Galactic and SpaceX. True, these companies benefit from government subsidies—some of them shockingly wasteful—but nonetheless, they are demonstrating once again economic advantages of private industry over government management of technology. According to Ed Hudgins, an expert on space privatization, “as a government bureaucracy, NASA simply can’t be efficient. Every decision must be vetted and procedures followed that have more to do with protecting butts than protecting safety and keeping costs reasonable.”6 Private companies, by contrast, are not only faster at changing plans when necessary, but they have the incentive to do so, because they—unlike government entities—must bear the costs of their mistakes.
Hudgins points out that other frontiers typically have been explored and tamed, not by government entities but by entrepreneurs who, thanks to the profit motive, have found more efficient and sustainable pathways to discovery and innovation. There’s no reason why the final frontier can’t be settled the same way. Doing so would require some important legal changes—particularly to treaties signed in the 1960s that mandate government oversight of activities in space and were not written with private passengers in mind.7 But even here, progress has been made. In 2015, President Barack Obama signed the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which protects the rights of companies to the materials they mine on asteroids.
Perhaps more important have been the successes of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket—with its capacity to descend safely after launch and come to rest on a landing pad, even one at sea—and of Virgin Galactic’s passenger ships, SpaceShipOne, and SpaceShipTwo. These innovations have not only made space launches cheaper and faster, but have proven that private industry can take the next step into the final frontier. “The private sector is solving the cost problem and opening opportunities for the future,” Hudgins concludes. “Just as private entrepreneurs led the communications and information revolution, so space entrepreneurs can do the same for generations to come.”8 (For more on the safety record of private industry, see this article on plane safety.)
Writing in the 1980s, McDougall feared that the technocracy ushered in by the space race had irrevocably supplanted the culture of independent pioneering that had once marked the American character and that it would “subsume our individualism” in the service of massive, government-planned undertakings that were “the analog of pyramid or cathedral building.”9 But the rise of space entrepreneurialism has shown that private enterprise is our best hope for exploring the stars.New frontiers typically have been explored and tamed, not by government entities but by entrepreneurs. There’s no reason why the final frontier can’t be settled the same way. Click To Tweet