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Review: America’s New Destiny in Space

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America’s New Destiny in Space
by Glenn Harlan Reynolds
Encounter Books, 2020
paperback, 54 pp.
ISBN 978-1-64177-182-5

The suborbital flights last month of Richard Branson on SpaceShipTwo and Jeff Bezos on New Shepard triggered an avalanche of criticism of the two men specifically and of privately funded spaceflight more generally. Some were outraged at Bezos in particular, the world’s wealthiest person, for spending money on spaceflight rather than on climate change or alleviating poverty or simply improving the wages and working conditions of employees at Amazon—criticism he did little to assuage afterwards by thanking Amazon employees and customers for making his flight possible. Others worried more broadly about giving the private sector too much control over what happens in space, fearing a mostly harmless suborbital race could turn into a high-stakes battle over the heavens.

Not all the commentary was negative. “Americans are good at democratizing things. Space is next,” was the headline of one newspaper column whose author predicted that “pretty soon any yahoo with enough gumption and bucks of his own can go to space.” (Bonus points for getting “yahoo” and “gumption” into the same sentence of a piece written in 2021, not 1871.) Another criticized the criticism of those recent achievements, calling it “a contempt for human endeavor as such, and a casual disregard for a new model of space exploration that holds enormous promise for the United States.”

“The largely unheralded revolution of the last decade has been that getting into space has become far cheaper than it used to be, and that it promises to get much cheaper still,” he writes.

While it predates last month’s flights, the recent book America’s New Destiny in Space by Glenn Harlan Reynolds fills a similar vein of commentary in support of commercial space endeavors. Reynolds, a law professor who was once an executive vice president of the National Space Society, uses this brief book—at barely 50 pages, it’s really more of a long essay—to explain commercial space is essential to the future of the United States and for humanity.

Reynolds argues there are three phases of spaceflight in history so far. The first “visionary” phase started long before the Space Age itself, encompassing the writings of Tsiolkovsky and rocketry breakthroughs of Goddard. The second, “command-economy” phase also predated the Space Age, when the German government started funding rocket development, and goes all the way through the end of the shuttle program a decade ago. He argues it’s being replaced by a “sustainable” phase, which he defines as “spaceflight that generates enough economic value to pay its own way.”

The boundaries between these phases are not sharp: government is still the key funder of many space capabilities today, while satellite communications have been sustainable for decades. But the industry is clearly going in the “sustainable” direction, he argues. “The largely unheralded revolution of the last decade has been that getting into space has become far cheaper than it used to be, and that it promises to get much cheaper still,” he writes. (In the space industry, at least, that drop in launch costs, thanks largely to SpaceX, has not gone unheralded.)

Reynolds then talks about the possibilities that low-cost space access enables, including some familiar, if still unrealized applications: space-based solar power, asteroid mining, and helium-3 extraction from the Moon, among others. He also offers recommendations for ensuring that the sustainable phase of spaceflight, such as light-touch regulation and the government acting more as a commercial customer.

Some of those recommendations are questionable. “More recently, we’ve seen how successful prizes can be,” he argues, citing the Ansari XPRIZE and Google Lunar XPRIZE as examples. But it took 25 years from the time the original XPRIZE was announced in the 1996 to the first flight of a commercial customer, Oliver Daemen on New Shepard last month, and Blue Origin wasn’t even an XPRIZE competitor. Only one of the GLXP teams, SpaceIL, has attempted a lunar landing, which failed more than two years ago. SpaceX, by contrast, has achieved success not through prizes but winning government awards, albeit for public-private partnerships and fixed-price deals rather than the cost-plus contracts long used by aerospace companies.

If you’re a space advocate, you’ll see the arguments in America’s New Destiny in Space as a good affirmation of the importance of commercial spaceflight and why this is a new era. But it’s not clear the book’s arguments will be convincing to others, since it really is just a recap of old arguments (such as invoking Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis, which has fallen out of favor with historians.) Advocates of commercial spaceflight, despite its recent successions, will need some gumption to win over the critics.

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