Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on today’s show is Corbin Barthold. Corbin is the internet policy council and director of appellate litigation at TechFreedom, an organization that examines the policy and legal questions raised by technological change. He writes regularly for City Journal, and his work has also appeared in publications such as Reason, The Bulwark, Law and Liberty, and other outlets. Corbin also hosts TechFreedom’s Tech Policy Podcast. Today, though, we’re going to discuss his recent essay for City Journal, “Do We Still Have the Right Stuff?,” which appears in our autumn issue and describes barriers to American space exploration and innovation, and our need to compete in the new 21st century space race.
So Corbin, thanks very much for joining us.
Corbin Barthold: Great to be here.
Brian Anderson: So you describe our present era in this essay as the space industry’s second Golden Age. New rockets and their designers, I think it’s fair to say, and this is something you note in the essay, they don’t get the kind of fanfare given earlier astronauts and space engineers. But this whole kind of initiative holds enormous potential to transform humanity’s relationship to space, to the extraterrestrial world. So I wonder if you could just give us a brief overview of where things stand with the modern space industry? Some people follow what SpaceX is up to, so perhaps you can update us on where they are, who are its major players, what significant innovations have they come up with?
Corbin Barthold: So that first Golden Age was very geopolitical. We all know the Space Race between the Soviet Union and the United States. And to simplify it only slightly, we wanted to get footprints and flags on the moon, and we succeeded. That was a technological marvel, amazing stuff. Once we beat the Soviets and their program petered out, we lost all momentum, we spent decades in a space malaise, lots of false starts, the culture in NASA sort of deteriorated, so we needed something totally different, really. Actually, some of the people at NASA predicted how this would turn out that we needed entrepreneurs to come in and be willing to put a lot of skin in the game, put a lot of private wealth into innovation, and that’s what we have seen starting with Elon Musk founding SpaceX.
He wants to get to Mars. That is his vision. That has been the vision from day one. He early on was looking at hitching a ride on other rockets, realized that wouldn’t work. So he’s built his own. He realized that he needed to fund this program, so that led to what is their workhorse called the Falcon 9. And the key here is that these rockets are reusable. Rockets have stages. The first stage is the booster, it’s very expensive. It can land on the ground. If any of you have seen these videos, it is just remarkable to watch them. A lot of people in the legacy aerospace industry basically laughed at this as a concept when Musk first proposed it. Musk, even once they completed a landing, said, “This is flight-proven technology.” And people thought that was just a gimmick and ridiculous. And now everybody wants to be on repeat launches of Falcon because everybody understands now that a reusable rocket that’s on its third or fourth flight is proven and safer and more reliable than a rocket on its first flight.
So SpaceX has basically gobbled up the entire global launch industry this year. I believe they’re responsible for 80 percent of the global payload into space. That’s everybody. That’s nations, that’s companies, that’s everybody. SpaceX is 80 percent. And so they’re just doing remarkable things. Maybe we can turn to Starship in a moment.
But the wider industry, I should also note, were SpaceX not around some of these other players would be considered remarkable as well. Blue Origin is behind SpaceX, but also making great strides in reusable rocketry. There are a lot of private firms that are piggybacking on this. The key, once things are reusable, payload to orbit becomes much, much cheaper, so now that opens the way for firms to look at manufacturing in space, creating pharmaceuticals in space. There’s a lot of advantages to zero gravity production of drugs, asteroid mining is being looked at. So this whole space economy can open up from this reusability.
And then finally, I’ll just mention, not only has SpaceX dominated the launch market, but they’ve used their own rockets to be a vertically integrated satellite internet provider. So they have their Starlink program that is now up and running. They are providing low-latency broadband from low earth orbit, another thing that seemed pretty preposterous 10 years ago that they have made a reality.
Brian Anderson: You mentioned NASA’s shift from being a kind of bold, dynamic agency that really operated with extraordinary efficiency and energy. Ten years after it’s founding, it put a man on the moon, but as you noted, it declined after that point. It devolved into a slow, very stiff bureaucracy. You called it a “space malaise” in the essay. I wonder what happened there. Why did it become notorious for missed deadlines, budget overruns? Was there any particular force or individual that was to blame for this?
Corbin Barthold: Well, first I should tip my hat to Adam Keiper—who at the time was at the New Atlantis, helped found it, and is now an editor at the The Bulwark—for the term, “space malaise.” I think maybe it makes more sense to turn that question on its head and treat the NASA of the early days as something exceptional within the government. I mentioned Gene Kranz in the article, and his attitude of, “failure is not an option,” although that term was coined later. NASA in the ‘60s was sort of SpaceX now: full of a lot of young, brilliant people, highly motivated, well-funded, well-supported, able to really be an engineering A-Team and pull off something remarkable. And I think after we achieved our goals, and then political support was removed and funding was drastically cut, all you really had was maybe you could call it, regression to the mean. NASA just became more like any old government agency. What’s surprising is their success, and not what they became.
And after that occurred, I don’t want to kick them too hard, they were still full of rocket scientists. But once you have budget cuts, you need to be more cautious. You need to be careful about what you spend, and you end up with a lot of path dependency. So the Space Shuttle program is really indicative of that, where you have something that was poorly designed from the very beginning, even to basic issues like you put your humans on the middle of the launch vehicle. You could actually argue that both the Challenger and Columbia accidents, in which 14 astronauts died, come down to that fundamental design flaw. And they tried to fix it, and fix it, and fix it, and because you had budget constraints, that was a big part of this. You don’t have the kind of thinking you have at SpaceX today where if something doesn’t seem to work, you can just say, “Well, let’s just redo it. Let’s just fundamentally change it. Let’s just turn on a dime.” They lost that.
Brian Anderson: As you note in this essay, things do seem to be improving a bit at NASA, and it now aims to conduct a manned lunar expedition in late 2025. This would be the first since the agency’s moon landing 60 years ago, basically. But the U.S. is not alone in its ambition, so the space effort does, again, have a kind of geopolitical resonance. Several countries, including China, India, and Russia have landed, or tried to land spacecrafts on the moon in recent years, and they have declared plans for sending astronauts there. A few years ago, China became the first country to land a rover on the moon’s far side. So how can the US maximize its competitive edge in aerospace, and what do we stand to gain or lose in this new space competition?
Corbin Barthold: China’s progress has been remarkable if you look at where they were 20 years ago. Twenty years ago, it was no space program. Basically they started and now they are doing things that no one else has done—a really remarkable progress. Their goal is to get to the moon by 2030. Their country is having lots of difficulties these days as we’ve seen, but they are very good at collecting engineers and doing these sort of top-down planning efforts, much as the Soviet Union was dysfunctional in so many ways and yet had a top-notch space program, I view the Chinese the same way. And both they and we are eyeing the south pole of the moon. There is water there. Water is an incredibly important resource for space exploration, not least because you can turn it into rocket fuel, methane, liquid methane for further launches outward, all kinds of other uses.
Our program is ahead of theirs, but partly because we have a big head start. I mean the Artemis Program is the name of this NASA program that’s aiming to get us back to the moon, and I’m sure some of them who work day in and day out wouldn’t like me putting it this way. But it’s basically built on spare parts from the Space Shuttle program, building on a lot of that technology even down to the solid rocket boosters on the Space Launch System, which is the main NASA vehicle, it has just repurposed space shuttle rockets. We spend about $3 billion a year on this. It’s called the Space Launch Vehicle. Meanwhile, we are paying SpaceX about $3 billion for its Starship program to land us on the moon. So it’s actually a joint public-private enterprise, very different from Apollo. The plan is to launch humans on the Space Launch Vehicle, the NASA vehicle, and so separately launch Starship.
There will be a rendezvous up around the moon where a vehicle called Orion, a command module will transfer humans over to SpaceX’s human launch vehicle, that will go down to the moon and back up. To make that work, SpaceX, unlike NASA, it’s not spare parts; they’re doing a lot of really difficult things from scratch. For instance, they are planning to refuel the Starship vehicle in orbit, and that is going to be a very, very difficult thing. They need to meet a lot of milestones. You mentioned the 2025 date. That’s almost certainly not going to be met, we’re going to fall back. To meet their milestones, they need to do lots of launches, and to do lots of launches, they need launch licenses from the Federal Aviation Commission, from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency. All of these people need to sign off on these things.
So the biggest risk to us is sort of a toxic combination of too much red tape, too little state capacity, and a lack of political will to deal with either one. We should be doing safety checks, we should have government oversight, we should be protecting the environment. These things are all important. The Chinese program is constantly crashing rockets into villages, and having uncontrolled reentries and stuff, because they don’t have to worry about this kind of stuff. And we should. But if we don’t put proper resources into FA review. If we let environmental review get out of control, which happens in all kinds of ways, we could easily fall behind, and the risk there is that the Chinese Communist Party, ignore whatever they say in public. They are very likely, if they beat us to the Moon’s south pole, to start to quickly try to claim territory. They’re not going to follow the outer space treaty and do this for all mankind is the risk, and that would very much be our program’s loss.
Brian Anderson: You just mentioned this, the logistical, legal challenges, financial challenges. They’re all real for space exploration, but they’re surmountable. The ultimate question is whether we really do want to surmount them. In recent years, the public has largely met aerospace innovation, apathy might be too strong a word, but without a huge amount of enthusiasm and interest. So why, in your view, is space exploration important not only to our national defense and economy, but perhaps to our national identity, to our aspiration?
Corbin Barthold: I quote Mike Solana, who’s a media figure now at Founders Fund, saying that the people who are dissing space exploration, the Elizabeth Warrens and the Bernie Sanders, it really actually displays a certain spiritual rot. As he points out, sort of even our Marxists are inadequate these days. The Soviet Union, say what you will about them, understood that space exploration was a monument to the human spirit of exploration. And to lose that is really, you need a very stunted view of human nature. I almost have a hard time articulating it because I have a very, fundamentally, in my bones the idea that, “Why are we going to the moon and onto Mars?” Well, because they’re there. As the mountain climbers say, it really goes without question to me that the human species is one of expansion, and growth, and exploration and adventure. And to see people who are utterly without that spirit almost confounds me.
And you’re correct. That’s before we even get to the fact that everything from GPS down to memory foam mattresses come from the scientific advances of space. So there are all kinds of practical reasons, and if I may say one thing about that, I think one thing our progressive friends constantly fail to understand because of this sort of zero-sum attitude where the pie never gets bigger, is a lot of these advances ultimately lead to progress in the very things that they care about. If you care about the environment, a couple steps down the road, we may be able to do a lot of our more polluting industrial activities off-planet. Jeff Bezos has talked about turning Earth into, basically a nature preserve.
Brian Anderson: It’s a fascinating and ultimately philosophical question. Well, Corbin, thanks very much. That was a great overview. Don’t forget to check out Corbin Barthold’s work on the City Journal website. That’s at www.city-journal.org. We’ll link to his author page in the description, and you can find him on X @corbinkbarthold. You can also find City Journal on X @CityJournal and on Instagram @CityJournal_MI. As always, if you like what you’ve heard on today’s podcast, please give us a nice rating on iTunes. Corbin Barthold, thanks, great to talk with you.
Corbin Barthold: Thank you so much.