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If you’re like me, you cheered the announcement by SpaceX head Elon Musk that his company plans to send two people on a slingshot swing around the Moon in 2018. But if you want a future filled with such exciting achievements, take a minute to ask what a society must have as prerequisites.
Private rockets from innovators
Musk, of course, is the entrepreneur who co-founded Paypal with Peter Thiel. He went on to found Tesla Motors, which produces cutting-edge cars and, soon, batteries that could power your house.
With SpaceX, Musk’s company has built rockets that now carry cargoes to the International Space Station on contact with NASA. And the Falcon Heavy rocket, which Musk hopes to test soon, will be capable of interplanetary voyages. It’s with this system he wants to send a ship with two private, paying passengers on a swing around the Moon, with lunar gravity hurling it back to Earth for a safe touchdown.
Musk is just one of a new breed of private entrepreneur doing what many thought only governments could do. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, through his company Blue Origins, is building his own innovative rockets, and Richard Branson, through Virgin Galactic, soon hopes to offer private, suborbital flights.
But consider what it takes—in our culture, values, and virtues—to produce such achievements or any of those that are on the horizon in exponential technologies like bioengineering, nanotech, robotics, and artificial intelligence.
Reason and science
First, it takes the value of reason and the virtue of rationality. You need to understand how the world actually works. Knowledge does not come from entitlements or some “narrative” of how you want the world to work, or your feelings or political correctness, or “safe spaces,” or religious dogma. It comes from an open-eyed commitment to objective reality and from the work of the mind. Ayn Rand wrote about Apollo 11, “Think of what was required to achieve that mission: think of the unpitying effort; the merciless discipline; the courage; the responsibility of relying on one's judgment; the days, nights and years of unswerving dedication to a goal; the tension of the unbroken maintenance of a full, clear mental focus; and the honesty."
Second, more innovations in the future will also require economic liberty and more private efforts. NASA, with thousands of smart and skilled scientists and engineers, and with government budgets of billions of dollars, put humans on the Moon. NASA robot probes are exploring Mars and orbiting telescopes exploring the depths of space for possible Earth-like planets in nearby solar systems.
But all government bureaucracies, no matter how intelligent and well-meaning their personnel, will never be as efficient as private entrepreneurs. Government agencies use taxpayer dollars with political strings attached. Build the facility in a powerful member of Congress’s district and you get the money. Government agencies are governed by legal procedures, guidelines, dictates, and crippling bloat and red tape. Government employees often must give priority to covering their own butts to supervisors or the members of Congress who vote their funds.
Private entrepreneurs, risking their own money, have an incentive to be efficient and to do things right. They can move quickly and cut through any bureaucracies in their own companies that get in their way. Musk personally was able to move quickly with decisions when launch systems were faced with problems that might have taken NASA months of hearing, paperwork, and added costs to resolve. And Musk, with fellow private space entrepreneurs, have only been able to get as far as they have because in recent decades, the government regulatory process needed for approval for private rocket launches has at least been streamlined. More reforms will be needed for private human flights. And even more major reforms will be needed to unleash innovation in bioengineering and other cutting-edge tech.
Love of achievement
The final element necessary for a future of innovations is a love of achievement. Many people might pay lip service to this love as a platitude, but that love is being seriously eroded in our culture. The culture tends to assign the highest esteem to those who “serve others” or “give back the most” rather than those who produce the most because they love their work. The fact is that such productive individuals are our greatest benefactors. But it is the love of the quest and the commitment to one’s own vision that makes the innovator.
Musk has said that he wants to die on the planet Mars—but not on landing! He is working with his money and imagination on the long-term goal on settling another planet. And it is that spirit in Musk and others that we should celebrate.
One individual who, fortunately, is generally honored in a culture that too often damns achievers as the “one-percent exploiters” is the late Steve Jobs. The Apple entrepreneur has said, “Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”
What better credo for an achievement culture!
Edward Hudgins, “SpaceX's Entrepreneurial Triumph.” May 25, 2012.
Edward Hudgins, “America's Pioneer Spirit: Government vs. New Frontiers.” February 10, 2011.
David Kelley, “Life: Your Adventure in Entrepreneurship.” June 1, 2009.
Edward Hudgins, “Apollo 11 on Human Achievement Day.” July 20, 2005.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.