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« Severe Free Ice Cream Shortage | Main | The Democrat's Sorry Lott »

I'm From The Government, And I'm Here To Help You

Ninety-nine years ago this past Tuesday, amid some windblown sand dunes on the shores of North Carolina, the first powered, controlled heavier-than-air flight occurred.

It was accomplished, as the popular myth has it, by two "bicycle mechanics" from Dayton, Ohio. The reality, of course, was that they almost single-handedly invented modern aerodynamics and aeronautical engineering, and they did it on their own, with their own resources.

They did have government competition, however. The Department of War (what would now be called the Department of Defense) funded a competitor to achieve the same goal (though they were probably totally unaware of the Wrights' ambitions)--Samuel Pierpont Langley, after whom the NASA Langley Research Center is named. His attempts, occurring just prior to the Wrights' accomplishment by weeks, were utter and embarrassing failures.

The Wright brothers' achievement, and example, quickly sparked the imaginations of thousands, then millions. Less than fifteen years later, hundreds of flimsy aircraft were shooting each other out of the skies over France and Germany, and aircraft were dropping crude bombs.

Five years after that, dozens of aviators were barnstorming America in their war-surplus Jennies and other aircraft, offering thrill rides at five dollars a head.

A decade later, there were commercial airlines and airliners, delivering mail and passengers, and thousands of people were spurning trains, flying between destinations, making the country much smaller than it had been only a decade before.

Forty-five years after the first flight, aircraft were propelled by jet engines, and even rocket engines, and the sound "barrier" had been broken.

Compare and contrast to our progress in space.

Forty-five years after the first launch of a satellite into orbit, where are we?

We can launch a couple dozen people per year into space, selected by government bureaucrats, at a cost of almost a percent of the total federal budget.

There is almost no private activity. No one can afford a ride in a space vehicle, unless they made millions in the stock market. No five-dollar rides, let alone regular passenger service to...anywhere.

What's the difference?

Conventional wisdom is that space is "hard," and that it's not surprising that we haven't made more progress. But such "wisdom" misses the essential point of the government role (and corresponding public expectation) in the two cases.

In the case of aeronautics, other than the failed attempts of Professor Langley, there was very little government involvement in the aeronautics industry. The Wrights had very little luck in persuading the US government to support their efforts, even after their successful flights, and actually ended up going to Europe for support.

In 1915, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) was founded, and it did indeed help the fledgling aeronautics industry. But it did so by providing basic technology, expanding on the Wrights' early explorations into aerodynamics and propulsion, and putting out tables of data that would aid aircraft designers.

What it didn't do was tell the industry how to build their airplanes, or actually fund new aircraft types, as a government enterprise. The government didn't take over the aeronautics business from the beginning, or even now. It remains a private (albeit government regulated) activity.

Instead, the government encouraged private enterprise in aeronautics by means such as subsidizing airmail, which didn't provide a means for bureaucrats to pick winners and losers.

More importantly, private individuals and corporations supported the activities through prizes and air races.

That's the fundamental difference between aeronautics and astronautics.

Astronautics was born in the middle of a war, albeit a cold one. From the very beginning in the 1950s, space was a realm of the government. This was not because it was unaffordable to private individuals, but because, under the circumstances, there was a government imperative to be first in space (just as in the early twentieth century, there was no government incentive to be involved in aeronautics at all).

For a few years in the late 1950s and early 1960s, space was Important. There were races to be won.

Accordingly, it got all of the budget that it needed, and in the process, corporate cultures and system design philosophies quickly adapted themselves to the notion that performance was the highest value, and cost was of no matter, because the customer would not only pay whatever was required, but be pleased if the costs were spread around to favor various congressional districts, even if total costs increased.

We continue to suffer, four and a half decades after the first satellite launch, from this mindset. Why pursue fickle and unpredictable markets among the general public when we have a government customer, stuck in the ways of doing business four decades old, who's willing to guarantee us our costs plus a fixed profit?

On this anniversary, one year shy a century, it is a good time to look back at how the aviation industry evolved, and see if there are some useful lessons to be applied to the space industry. Is it possible that, with a different, more market-oriented approach, we could have made more space progress in the last half century?

I suspect that it's not only possible, but extremely likely.

Posted by Rand Simberg at December 18, 2002 07:56 PM
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I am a fan of this site from way back, and along with, consider it a great resource.

However, I must note some essential differences between Kitty Hawk and Cape Canaveral.

The airplane increased the speed of transport IN a world people were already travelling around with other methods. Space travel involves travel to new places. Also, unlike Columbus' voyage, the places that Space travel can take us are in need of some serious adaptation to human needs. Lindberg did not need special equipment to breathe in France, nor did he have to bring
post-flight food with him.

Also, the price of entry into the space game is
somewhat prohibitive . Otherwise, groups of enthusiasts like us would not be blogging- we would be forming clubs to orbit the earth and
explore the moon.


Posted by David A Burroughs at December 19, 2002 08:52 AM

As long as we have water we can create the oxygen and fuel that we need. With nanotechnology we will be able to build whatever we need from the most barest of elements. With genetic research we will be able to change people and animals to adapt to the environment were sending them to instead of changing the environment.

Posted by Hefty at December 19, 2002 11:38 AM

Rand, while the space as aviation analogy is not exact (space is also like the early exploration of the Americas), it is apt enough that I think that you're about to stumble into a positive agenda for opening up the space frontier.

So, in your opinion, what is the "air mail" core market that would help accomplish this?

Posted by Mark R. Whittington at December 19, 2002 01:09 PM

Passenger tickets.

NASA purchases thousands of them at, say, fifty thousand each, uses the ones it needs, and auctions the rest back onto the market.

Posted by Rand Simberg at December 19, 2002 02:31 PM

How can ayone, who reads this column regularly, ask what is the "air mail". Right now we are building the Space Station. It would be moving along faster IF a system of private enterprises were available to move the pieces into orbit. Not to mention the savings to the government if the blasted thing was being built by industry for industry.

Long before the space station started, and continuing into the future, satellites need launching and repairing.

What would be the cost/profit of harvesting and recycling "space trash". Sell it to collectors, or museums.

How about growing crystals for chips, or what kind of medicines could be produced in zero g.

Why is it that people think the Feds are the only ones who can do this job. A simple private person just found three things that could be done by private enterprise.

Posted by Steve at December 19, 2002 04:15 PM

But perhaps the Sputnik launch is really equivalent to the Montgolfier Brothers launch in the late 1700s. It worked, but remained a curiosity until a whole new approach was adopted.

Posted by Patrick at December 19, 2002 06:07 PM

> How about growing crystals for chips, or what kind of medicines could be produced in zero g.

I like Tang more than the next guy, but if it disappeared, I'd still be happy.

There's been lots of talk about chips and drugs, but is there any evidence that zero-G solves real problems?

For example, one of the most important problems in advanced chips now is leakage current. Do chips made in zero-G have lower leakage current? If not, what other important behavioral characteristic do they have? (No one cares about "purity" or "grain alignment" - they care about having enough of whatever physical property is necessary to get good behavior. More of that property is of no value.)

At this point, it's not enough to say "we don't know". We've spent enough to know, and if we still don't know, why would anyone believe that spending more will have a different result? (There is a positive answer to that question, but it requires something other than "more of the same".)

Posted by Andy Freeman at December 20, 2002 08:53 AM

" there any evidence that zero-G solves real problems?"

I don't think by any means we've spent enough to know -- much of what we should be investigating is so new on Earth that it hasn't made it into orbit, for one.

The problem with science in orbit is that it's been so damnably expensive to date that precious little has been done -- and all of that was what got past the peer reviews and group approvals. I submit that the true microgravity advancements will be made the same way advancements on Earth are so often made: by the guys who go against the popular trends, and strike out on their own.

But they won't get approved for a NASA flight, unfortunately; they'll have to wait for orbital lab time to be commonly available, at reasonable costs, and not under government or academic control. And that won't happen on NASA's watch, either.

Posted by Troy at December 22, 2002 11:11 PM

Great post! Wasn't there quite a struggle by the Wrights to get recognition and patents as the first pchta fliers? Lets hope they get a little appreciation this time next year.

Posted by Lloyd Albano at December 24, 2002 10:32 AM


I have to take the side of "Hefty" and Patrick.

If the reality of nanotechnology comes anywhere close to its promise, then all the astronautical feats of the past 50 years will surely appear puerile in comparison.

And if you think, as Patrick and I do, that the Montgolfier brothers are a closer parallel to the Apollo program than the Wright brothers, then much of the NASA spending on manned space flight and space stations is simply wasted.

What would be wrong with devoting most of the NASA budget to unmanned space exploration while waiting for nanotechnology (or some other technology revolution) to advance to the point of payoff? Based on the present status of "off-the-shelf" technologies, it appears to me that we might as well be back in the 1700s trying to develop an airplane without having the internal combustion engine for power.

Posted by Anarchus at December 27, 2002 09:33 AM

Your "air mail" is about to be regulated out of existence. Check out the FAA's Commercial Space Transportation site and take a look at their proposal for regulations governing the licensing of comercial launch activities ( Essentially, the bureaucrats want to apply all of the same safety standards used at the Federal large launch complexes to any budding small launch activities. The end result will be costs that stifle innovation and any hope of a viable small launch commercial business base.

Posted by steve alltop at January 8, 2003 02:17 PM

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