The Way to the Stars

A flawless launch and flight, and a milestone in the reconquest of space. This time it is not a rocket built by a government committee but by private enterprise – SpaceX. While bureaucrats sitting in offices seek the dull safety of familiarity with the eyes of bureaucracy on ledgers of politicians on tomorrow’s ballot box, private enterprise always has its eyes on the stars.

The wonders that SpaceX have achieved cannot be overstated. Since 2002, Richard Branson has been trying and failing to use existing technology to get a craft into mere suborbital flight, but in that same time, Elon Musk has created a new company created new technology and built numerous successful rockets, with support structure and drone ships culminating last weekend in sending a crew safely to the International Space Station, all while pushing a transport revolution on the roads too. He is not alone – Jeff Bezos has been beaten to the main achievement, but his Blue Origin has made tremendous progress in commercial space.

The rockstar of the two is Musk. The publicity over the launch was about how American it was but it has Elon Musk’s personality, genius and drive all through it, and Elon Musk is British to all intents and purposes. He is South African, of a South African father and Canadian mother, and has joint South African-Canadian citizenship (and American too – he picks passports up like souvenirs). Canadians and South Africans are Britons really, as we know, with all the inheritance of the world’s greatest culture. We might get faintly embarrassed by our own Richard Branson limping behind, but we have Elon Musk to count as our own, and he has more to do with his company’s technical ability than Branson has in his (he employs Americans).

To be fair to Richard Branson, he has different aims in mind, and when he succeeds, and he must, it is for different purposes, and to make spaceflight cheaper than anyone else will achieve, by being less ambitious.

The new entrepreneurs, Musk and Bezos, have found their own solutions by coming into the field from outside it. I cannot help looking at some other efforts with a feeling of familiarity and knowing there are dangers in a company whose slogan could be “Yesterday’s Technology for Tomorrow!”

Then comes the fourth wheel, while could be a revolution even though it really is using the ideas of the 1980s: Reaction Engines and the Skylon project. The ideas may be 1980s, but the achievement is up to date. The question is whether they can achieve cheaper £-per-pound to orbit launch costs, when their main issue is lack of any investors. Maybe they need a rockstar. If the cash were there, Skylon would be punching payloads into orbit in a year or two.

It looks as if I said at the beginning that governments are useless at this sort of thing, but it was NASA, a state agency which put men on the Moon. There was one crucial difference between that project and any other tumbledown government project: George Mueller. He was a single, driven man who took command out of committees and into his own hands to ensure that he took responsibility and made it happen. NASA in the 60s had George Mueller as SpaceX today has Elon Musk.

Governments fail because they are made up of individual petty clerks with no personal reason to succeed, with a few outstanding exceptions. Companies succeed when they have driven men who know how to succeed. That is what we are seeing today. That is the way to the stars.

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Author: AlexanderTheHog

A humble scribbler who out of my lean and low ability will lend something to Master Hobbes

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