NASA’s Next Human Space Launch Points the Way out of the Covid Crisis

NASA’s Launch is a Milestone, but Could be Much More

The next human space launch by NASA will bring two Americans to the International Space Station. While this launch is particularly significant for America’s human spaceflight program, how we got there could point the way forward for America’s emergence from the Covid-19 crisis.

First, a Look at What is Happening

On March 27th, weather permitting, two American astronauts will launch aboard the SpaceX Dragon 2 spacecraft and loft into orbit on a Falcon 9 rocket.

This launch will mark the first crewed spacecraft to launch from the United States since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011. For nearly a decade, the only countries that have been able to launch people into space have been Russia and China.

How is this Launch Different?

The Dragon Spacecraft and Falcon 9 rockets are “commercial” products. Prior to this, all crewed spacecraft used by NASA had been fully funded, designed, and built, with taxpayer money. In the past, NASA would seek out a contractor to build what they wanted (usually Boeing, Northrop, or Lockheed) and NASA would direct the work and fund development through a “cost-plus” contract.

These cost-plus contracts pay the contractor for their full cost…plus profit. As a consequence, these programs tended to go horribly over budget and were badly delayed. There was simply no incentive on the part of the contractor to deliver on time or on budget.

Dragon 2, on the other hand, was developed by SpaceX through a “fixed-price” contract. NASA determined what capabilities they needed and provided some seed money to SpaceX. In order to receive that money, SpaceX had to hit development milestones, and if they ran over budget…would have to raise the cost difference themselves. It is estimated that the commercial crew program saved NASA and the American taxpayer in the ballpark of $20–30 billion while delivering a groundbreaking spacecraft.

What Could This Lead To?

There is a historical precedent for public/private partnerships leading to and opening up the development of entirely new industries. Christopher Columbus didn’t sail across the ocean with the investment of private entrepreneurs, he did so with the backing of the government…King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. The internet began as a government-funded program under the Department of Defense. The airline industry can trace its roots to the government-funded air-mail program led by the Post Office, which created demand and spurred innovation in an industry that did not yet exist. Even the front-running effort to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 is also a partnership of government money with private ingenuity.

Public/private partnerships of this kind vindicate both ends of the political spectrum, the “right” which lauds the capability of private industry to innovate, and the “left” who believe that government should make investments that serve the public good. Yet, there is little appetite for large scale investments into emerging technology in Congress.

The Way Forward?

Commercial space contracts on a fixed-price basis deliver innovation quicker and more cheaply than traditional government-led efforts. The continued success of these public-private partnerships should be a wake-up call for Congress to support massive investments into science, technology, and innovation through such partnerships. The government can invest on a longer time horizon and can absorb financial losses in ways that private investors cannot. Such “loses” could counter-intuitively unlock entirely new industries, jobs, and sources of economic growth, as they have done in the past.

While we look for a way out of the COVID-19 economic depression, the focus has been on bailing out and preserving the existing industry. While this is fine in the short term, the better solution would be massive investments into the future of robotics, space travel, AI, sustainable energy, and other emerging technologies. These investments would be a far greater economic stimulus than any “bailouts” could possibly be…because they wouldn’t only protect job that exists today, but help create the jobs of tomorrow.

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