What the SpaceX launch represents

Come for the thrill of the rocket show. Stay for the groundbreaking innovation.

A SpaceX rocket.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images)

Lots of us will check out Saturday's SpaceX launch, assuming the weather cooperates. After all, it has been nearly a decade since astronauts launched into orbit from American soil. And it will be the first time a privately-built rocket — a pretty cool-looking one at that — takes them there. Also, you know, it's an Elon Musk thing.

Of course, the tech entrepreneur and multibillionaire has bigger ambitions than merely running a shuttle service to the International Space Station. He famously wants to make humanity a "multi-planetary species." That means colonizing the Moon, then Mars, and then beyond. Musk, or maybe X Æ A-Xiii, is coming for you, Titan!

Yet the novelty will quickly wear off for most of us. Far fewer will probably tune into future launches. Even the scrubbed launch last Wednesday didn't get overwhelming media attention, despite its historic nature. One might have predicted otherwise given our collective need to focus on something uplifting — something that isn't COVID-19 or President Trump.

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Yet despite America's love of science fiction stories about adventures in space, they're not so interested in America actually going there. In a 2019 poll by The Associated Press, only about a fifth of respondents thought it "important" or "very important" for NASA to send astronauts to the Moon and Mars for a visit, much less establish a permanent human presence on other planets. Machines? Fine. Carbon-based lifeforms? Not so much. Indeed, the only space-related activities about which we seem really enthused are looking at space through telescopes and monitoring what we see in case any of it is headed toward the third planet from the Sun.

But there's nothing new about this ambivalence. Americans' historic support for the space program, including Apollo, always seemed more a product of Cold War opposition to the Soviet Union than a deep, primal desire to explore space for its own sake. And once the United States won the space race to the Moon in July 1969, the public and most politicians moved on. If you had entered the Oval Office in December of that year, you might have noticed hanging on the wall the iconic "Earthrise" photo taken a year earlier on the Apollo 8 mission. But President Nixon had it taken down sometime the following year. He had moved on.

Moreover, support for space exploration was always tempered by a discomfort towards perceived trade-offs in government spending on other things. There's a memorable reminder of that reality in the recent biopic about Neil Armstrong, First Man, starring Ryan Gosling as the first human to set foot on the lunar surface. The film includes a protest sequence where actor Leon Bridges portrays musician and poet Gil Scott-Heron reciting his work "Whitey on the Moon." "A rat done bit my sister Nell with whitey on the moon. Her face and arms begin to swell, and whitey's on the moon. I can't pay no doctor bills, but whitey's on the moon. Ten years from now I'll be payin' still, while whitey's on the moon."

Still, despite troubles aplenty here on Earth in 2020, even those of us who aren't space nuts like Musk should be plenty excited about this new chapter in America's national mission in space. In the 2018 paper, "Space, the Final Economic Frontier," Harvard Business School professor Matt Weinzierl outlines the vast economic possibilities of off-planet economic development. He notes private companies have begun to rapidly embrace space as a promising economic sector potentially worth many trillions. It marks a transition away from decades of reliance on government and a step towards "a large-scale, largely self-sufficient, developed space economy" driven by private actors. While much of this is based on satellites and telecommunications, companies are looking further into the long-term potential of the emerging space economy, including space tourism and manufacturing — someday maybe even asteroid mining. "Though economists should treat the prospect of a developed space economy with healthy skepticism, it would be irresponsible to treat it as science fiction," he writes.

Such visions of course remain speculative and heavily contingent on future innovations. But ground-breaking innovations are rarely anticipated far in advance. And just because we don't know how the space economy's potential will be realized doesn't mean we should dismiss it, especially now when many of us are having trouble imagining a 21st century that isn't kind of awful. So good luck to SpaceX, NASA, and astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. Now let's light this candle!

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James Pethokoukis

James Pethokoukis is the DeWitt Wallace Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute where he runs the AEIdeas blog. He has also written for The New York Times, National Review, Commentary, The Weekly Standard, and other places.