TCS Daily

Spaceship One-derful

By Tim Worstall - June 25, 2004 12:00 AM

As the third generation of my family to work, however peripherally, in rocketry and aerospace perhaps I can add my $0.02's worth to the Spaceship One celebrations? There's a justified jubilation at the achievement of the first private visit to space and also a countervailing current of thought that it is all a waste of time and money. Just as Scaled Composites point out in their press releases the important point is that it is the first private visit, with a number of implications for the future.

The naysayers appeared on the web mere moments after the announcement of success. A waste of money, rich men with their toys, never amount to anything useful, so many things we should be doing right here and right now, complaints that have been heard since the first caveman stayed at home from the hunt one day and started chipping flint. What the criticism fails to understand are these two major points.

First, that inventors are hopelessly bad at working out what their new invention will actually be used for. Edison thought the phonograph would be a dictation machine and resisted the recording of music for years. The telephone was marketed at first as a method of remote listening to live concerts, not a method to speak to others. Thomas Watson thought the world might need five computers maximum and, despite that kiss at the convention, I don't think Al Gore thought the Internet's most profitable business would be pornography.

There are arguments, even valid ones, that free markets are not very good at long term projects, at ones that require investment in new technologies. However, what they are very good at is working out what to do with something once it exists. For once the news gets out that something is possible there are 6 billion curious little monkey brains all trying to work out an angle, 6 billion people thinking of how one can turn a profit, use this new technology to achieve their pet aims. This is very different from grandfather's work on Blue Streak (a UK adaptation of the Atlas rocket) which was brought to an end because a bureaucrat could not work out what to do with it and so canceled the entire project.

These new uses can be completely at odds with whatever it was that the promoter or manufacturer of the new product thought it would or even should be. It has been said that Henry Ford changed the courting habits of a nation with the Model T, probably not something he would have approved of, and there is the possibly apocryphal story of the geneticist asked which invention had done the most for the health of the working man. Not antibiotics or plumbing or any of these obvious things, he thought it was the bicycle: it allowed courting outside one's home village to the immense benefit of the next generation's gene pool.

No one really knows what access to space will be used for, not even those spending their money and pushing it. We can all make a few guesses of course, yet these guesses will be validated by someone actually doing it, making money from it and attracting competitors.

The second major point that detractors miss is that free markets are incredibly good at making things cheap. Yes, it has cost $20 million to get this far and put one private individual into space. That's the total program cost of course, the next person to go up will cost a fraction of that. Yet even that is not quite what I mean. Imagine, as I think is virtually certain, that over the next decade someone extends the performance of these private vehicles to Low Earth Orbit. As Jerry Pournelle has repeatedly pointed out, once you are in orbit you are not halfway to the Moon, you are halfway to anywhere. Being able to get to LEO means you can actually stay there, even with a small payload you can send up many cargoes and actually build something. Once that is done, once we have a reasonably safe and reasonably cost effective method of getting to orbit, say $ 1 million a trip and a 1 in 100 chance of disaster, what do you think will happen then? Mass production.

We'll stop using hand crafted machines and start churning them out on production lines, bringing the costs down to where some hundreds of thousands of people will have the opportunity to try out their ideas about what to do in space. There will be a new Henry Ford who will change the world in ways that he both did not mean to and would not recognize, and he'll do it for that basest of motives, profit. The basic technologies in propulsion, in metallurgy, avionics, fuels, they're already out there, we're just waiting for that bright spark to put them all together in what will, I hope, become the 21st century equivalent of the Conestoga Wagon. Just as one trivial example, I know a Taiwanese bicycle manufacturer who will ship you tomorrow aluminum plate suitable for rockets, actually rather better material than that NASA uses on the Shuttle external tanks.

So while I congratulate Burt Rutan and Paul Allen on their achievement I'm also remembering the advice of Frederic Bastiat to economists: always look for the hidden. What is important about Spaceship One is not that a private organization has done it once, but that now that it has been done once free markets will continue to make it better, faster, cheaper and someone, one amongst our fellow humans, will work out what to actually do with it, in a manner that none of us today has any inkling of. That's why free markets are important, that's why the first private space trip is important and that's why Paul Allen has done a great deal more than fund a rich man's toy.

Tim Worstall is a TCS contributor. You can find more of his writing at


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