The Dragon cargo space capsule, owned by the SpaceX company and the first successful mission to the International Space Station (ISS) by a private business, splashed into the Pacific yesterday. I don’t understand all the hullabaloo about it; such launches were successfully done by the state 50 years ago -- in fact, the Communists beat the corporations to it by decades! Indeed, more than 40 years ago “big government” successfully put many men on the moon and safely returned them to the Earth, a much bigger and grander accomplishment. Space flight is decades-old technology just now being commercialized, and only those already inclined to fetishize the achievements of private corporations would think that this is a major, historic event. Only now, long after governments took the risk of first going into space, privatized space tourism (for wealthy multimillionaires) and this private cargo capsule venture depend on the public infrastructure of the ISS, built by a cooperative effort of many governments around the world, and funded by the taxpaying citizens of many nations. Whatever profits commercial space travel makes for private companies is dependent on public largess.
Thus one would think today would be a reminder of the value of government to business and a reminder to free-market worshippers that the very creation of markets is done by governments. It is governments that almost open new sectors, whether it be exploration of a frontier for resource extraction companies to exploit, building a highway system for car companies to capitalize on, creating a World Wide Web with all its opportunities, or giving late-comer private space companies a place to deliver goods. Despite the self-congratulations of “risk-taking” entrepreneurs and financiers, markets are rarely the courageous pioneers -- indeed, when it comes to real, physical risks, government leads the way, as the history of the aerospace industry shows, with its heroic test pilots and astronauts. Alexander Hamilton, widely worshipped on Wall Street, more than 200 years ago argued for a very active “big government” industrial policy, including a public investment bank, on the grounds that risk and high fixed costs deterred merchants from adequately investing in new, growing sectors. The public had to lead the way.
The US space program was once a symbol to all the world of the amazing things that government can do. For decades it was a testament to our once-stronger public sphere. It is a shame that America has allowed its manned space capacity degrade by letting the Space Shuttle program end without a replacement ready; as we rent rides from the Russians, they say the grounding of our astronauts is only temporary, but the degradation of such a public capacity can very easily become permanent in an era of economic stagnation and budget cuts. The end of the manned space program may be a sign of a more permanent American decline -- one brought about by long neglect of our common infrastructure and our shared public sphere.