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The balance between government funding and the private innovator’s freedom to create has been most recently highlighted in the reinvigorated space race between U.S. companies, NASA and foreign governments.
Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos have built upon the space tech progress that NASA scientists and engineers pioneered in the 1950s and 60s. Due to the billionaire status of these moguls, the awe-inspiring feats of their respective companies has been met by the media and public with some harsh words.
On my Twitter feed I saw thousands of trending posts criticizing space travel when we have so many enduring economic problems in America and poverty around the world. In another vein, pundits accuse these private companies of getting a “free ride” from prior government investment in space research and development.
Both of these criticisms fail to account for several important realities. The U.S. government, in a bid to reaffirm our status as the global superpower, invested heavily to beat out China and Russia in the 1960s space race and used the progress in science the U.S. made during World War II. Like with flight, vaccinations and earthquake monitoring, one person's important discovery cannot remain private information forever. Patents have expiration dates for this reason.
For example, we all enjoy electricity, lamps and light bulbs largely thanks to Thomas Edison. No one is accusing lamp manufacturers of stealing Edison’s credit and personal time invested in inventing the light bulb because there is a common, societal acceptance that some discoveries are composed of knowledge that others should access and build upon. Globally, air travel is widely accessible due in part to the plethora of private aviation tinkerers and military plane design experiments between World War I and today.
The other criticism of space travel is that it is preventing global poverty from being solved. This is a common misunderstanding similar to the idea that “$1 earned by one person is a $1 taken from another.”
This also manifests in the stolen value of labor theory, a common criticism of a CEO’s salary that are usually quite large compared to an assembly line worker’s wage. This isn’t to say that people shouldn’t be paid fair and just wages but it is important to remember where the value in a product or company lies.
The invention, design and function of the iPhone is its true and unique value that cannot be easily replicated while the person installing the screen - an important iPhone component - can be substituted by another employee. This isn’t a reflection on the value of a person’s life, merely on the ability of a certain task to be replicated by another person.
Invention and innovation should not and will never be halted because tragedy, like poverty, exists at home and abroad. Musk suspending his invention and investment in space travel will not necessarily mean that his financial backers will invest directly to charity. Money invested in experiments and venture capital products are tied to the chance of future financial success that inevitably benefits society.
The Apollo mission produced digital flight controls that are commonly used in cars and airplanes today and rechargeable silver-zinc batteries common to hearing aids were also a result of tech experiments for the mission.
Libertarians and conservative are often falsely accused of trying to cut all government spending and prioritizing private spending and decisions over government funding and control. In reality, like with people left of center, policymakers understand we live in a very complex society where federalism, and sometimes federal intervention or funding, is necessary to overcome specific, identifiable barriers.
For example, with the COVID vaccines, government investment was made into these vaccines and a “discount” in the form of FDA regulation suspension was given to a few companies.
The U.S. government supported and continues to support a large body of space research for national security and, as a fringe benefit, national morale. Now private companies are taking this knowledge and capitalizing on the initial investment. Their discoveries will undoubtedly benefit human flourishing in their race to space.
We should celebrate this drive to discover and decision to privately finance instead of meeting it with suspicion and criticism.
Patricia Patnode is a Gazette editorial fellow. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org