The Stark Politics of SpaceX’s Starship

Just hours before the official unveiling of SpaceX’s Starship prototype, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine took to Twitter and made a statement that shocked much of the space community.

The ill-timed and tone-deaf tweet underscored the continued battle between what many call “old-space” and “new-space” with longstanding government contractor heavyweights, Lockheed, Northrop, and Boeing on the former and SpaceX at the forefront of the latter. The tweet was perceived as a jab at SpaceX, which is, admittedly, quite behind schedule on the Commercial Crew program. Nonetheless, Twitter uses were quick to point out the apparent hypocrisy of disparaging SpaceX for its Commercial Crew delays while failing to call out its Commercial Crew rival Boeing, who has faced similar delays. Others noted that another NASA program, contracted to “old-space” heavyweights, the SLS rocket, is vastly further behind schedule and over-budget.

Render of the SLS rocket

The SLS rocket development began as the “Ares V” and was seen a simple and cheap means of returning mankind of the Moon. Without getting into too much detail on the design (if you would like a video with more detail, click here), the SLS uses existing hardware developed in the 1970s, such as modified Solid Rocket Boosters from the Space Shuttle, a modified external fuel tank, and leftover RS-25 engines from the shuttle orbiters. This is all topped off with an off-the-shelf upper stage. The SLS rocket engenders little to no innovation, and no truly new hardware, and this was intended to make returning to the Moon fast and cheap. It didn’t happen that way.

The rocket’s intended payload capacity has managed to magically shrink as development has dragged on. What was initially a payload capacity to LEO of 180 tons, has now shrunk to 95. Meanwhile, the maiden flight has faced endless delays. Originally scheduled for 2015, it has now been pushed back to mid-2020, though most experts admit that 2021 is more likely. Additionally, the rocket’s development is so vastly over-budget that it does not seem that anyone, including NASA, have a handle on just how much has been spent. One estimate put the development cost at a staggering $28 billion through 2019. Finally, if and when it when it does fly, the cost per launch, once thought to be around $500 million, is now placed at least $800 million. Bear in mind, despite these incredible delays and cost overruns, NASA has actuslly awarded SLS contractors bonuses for their “excellent” or “very good” performance. All of this is to say…public admonishment of SpaceX just doesn’t make any sense.

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One could forgive cost overruns and delays if the SLS was demonstrating groundbreaking new technology, but clearly this is not the case. Ironically, the Starship prototype, the unveiling of which prompted Bridenstine’s tweet, intends to do just that. The Starship, which I wrote about in more detail here, consists of entirely new hardware, hopes to fly next year, will have a payload capacity equal to or higher than the SLS, will cost about $10 million per flight (all while development is expected to run under $3 billion).

SpaceX Starship Rocket

Why then, single out SpaceX for delays? What is happening here?

In the book, Why Nations Fail, the author illustrates the reasons that some nations flourish while others flounder. The difference lies in whether or not that nation is primarily “extractive” or “inclusive” with regard to its economic structure. In an extractive nation, the government and ruling elite seek to extract as much wealth as possible from its subjects. The preservation of power in the extractive system requires that ruling elite put in place arbitrary barriers intended for the sole purpose of maintaining the status quo.

The quintessential example of this occurred in 1589 when William Lee, the inventor of the “stocking frame” knitting machine, demonstrated the machine to Queen Elizabeth in hopes of securing a patent for the technology. The machine promised to greatly reduce the costs of textiles and increase textile output per worker. The Queen, to his dismay, refused to grant him a patent, fearing that the machine would put many of her subjects out of work and threaten the stability of her regime as skilled textile workers would find themselves begging for food. The regime, if it is extractive in nature, will seek to inhibit the use of new technology because new technology brings with it the creative destruction of innovation. New technology threatens the socio-economic and political foundations upon which the regime stood. If that innovation is not supporting the continued existence of the incumbent industry that supports the status quo…it must be suppressed.

Economic growth ultimately follows from productivity growth (greater output per worker). Productivity growth is largely driven by innovation and the technology that enable workers to do more with less. Therefore, it stands to reason that arbitrarily inhibiting innovation is a leading indicator to reduced economic productivity and economic growth.

NASA and Congress, therefore, should be supporting companies and programs that bring about the most possible innovation for the least possible taxpayer expense. This is crucial for the continued success of the American economy in the long term. The SLS rocket does not remotely fill this mandate, SpaceX’s projects, delayed or not, very much do. The public criticism of SpaceX is just another symptom of a broken system that funnels money toward the favored and politically-connected while shielding them from criticism. The SLS appears to be a project intended to support the status quo and maintain the political legacies of current ruling incumbents, not innovation, and certainly not space exploration or the long term survival of humankind.

It would not be fair to characterize NASA as fully opposed to SpaceX and “newspace.” Indeed, NASA does also fund and work with SpaceX and others quite enthusiastically. Nonetheless, far more money is still flowing toward “oldspace” with little to no oversight as to how it is spent. This is a dangerous position to be in for NASA, the space community, and the American people at large. We risk becoming a fully extractive society that inhibits innovation and science at the expense of supporting an increasingly wealthy and entrenched ruling elite. It is time to make it clear to Congress that NASA funding is for innovation and exploration, not a backdoor to reelection contributions.

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