Last year, NASA launched its first human space mission from US soil since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011. For almost a decade, US astronauts had been dependent on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to go into space – an impossible geopolitical situation when space competition is heating up. However, this new mission would not have been possible without the support of tech billionaire Elon Musk and his rocket company SpaceX. In fact, NASA contracted SpaceX to replace its space shuttle program, effectively outsourcing the capacity of the US to launch humans into space to Elon Musk. In addition, Musk has been rapidly testing the reusable launch system of his SpaceX Starship prototypes over the last months. SpaceX’s Starship could lead to very significant cost reductions in the US space capacity (Musk claims to launch at 1% of current NASA cost). Elon Musk is aiming for the old Sci-Fi dream: to transport humans to Mars.
Musk’s space ambitions are one of many examples showing that leading private individuals are increasingly substituting for governments. Fifty years ago, it was the hallmark of government prowess that it could put a man on the moon. In the Manhattan Project, large groups of scientists worked together with government bureaucracies to achieve big innovation. Now, however, governments in the West struggle to build websites (remember the failure to launch Obama care?) and launch a track-and-trace app to reduce virus transmissions. It took nine months for private companies to develop vaccines against Covid-19, but governments are still struggling to come up with a vaccine passport to allow international travel to resume.
There are two elements in this substitution. Firstly, governments seem to be increasingly unable to offer big visions to society, such as for example the race to Mars or the global project of combating climate change. Secondly, Musk seems to hit a nerve that has something to do with the failings of government.
One reason might be bureaucracy and how governments and agencies are hamstrung in their actions while the private sector is moving fast on innovation. For example, Musk seems to follow an ambitious trial-and-error strategy, including letting a series of rockets explode in Texas in rapid sequence to learn more about what is needed for the development of Spaceship. These are working methods that are close to impossible for a NASA director or government official to defend: a rocket explosion would count as failure, not as a necessary step for success.
Elon Musks calls an explosion of his rockets a RUD – Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly – a term that he might well have coined himself. And while this might be to some extent facetiously meant there is a point to it. Musk certainly does not like one of his rockets exploding, but he considers it as a part of the process. He does not lose sleep over it. In contrast, government-led projects in agencies such as NASA have a long history of becoming increasingly risk averse. It seems that trial-and-error, the most human learning method of all, cannot be easily part of government anymore. If the way in which you learn is by success only, then you have less room for manoeuvre for taking risks to try something new. However, it seems Musk is challenging exactly that with the way in which he works. The processes of SpaceX are optimised for collecting criticism and above all new ideas.
For instance, Musk personally stays in contact via social media with thousands of enthusiasts following his work. He keeps sending out concrete plans and replies to comments. When one commentator on twitter suggested a change of rocket sequencing during flight of spaceship, Elon Musk replied saying: “We were too dumb”. And this is a part of how organisations can learn. It might be more difficult for an outsider with a revolutionary idea to have access or let alone convince NASA senior staff of completely changing methods or “trying something new”. It certainly is unlikely that an outsider would get a reply from NASA director if he were to write a tweet to NASA suggesting a redesign of launch sequence based on an idea.
This brings us to another key element, which is how governments learn. And this is important in the 21st century race for innovation and new globalisation. It seems part of the reasons for the growing role of private sector individuals are not only that governments increasingly shy away from moonshot projects, or that they might be hindered by their processes or methods, but also by the way in which they (can) learn. Our topic is also essentially about ambition and process, and these things have impacts. If governments are limited to learn from success only, they should not be surprised to become more and more dependent on private sector, or indeed see private sector increasingly replacing them.