Does Obama Deserve Credit for Elon Musk’s SpaceX Triumph? Yes and No

About 44 miles south of Pensacola, Florida, two astronauts on Sunday splashed into the Gulf of Mexico. Within minutes recovery boats were on the scene to haul in Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who NASA officials later said were in perfect health. It was the first water landing by astronauts since the Ford Administration.

“What an amazing day. Today we really made history,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said following the splashdown.

The first astronaut space orbit launched by a private company had been a sparkling success, “a triumph of the private sector in space.”

Yet within hours of the return something happened.

President Obama congratulated the astronauts on Twitter and noted that it was his administration that “launched the Commercial Crew program to strengthen our U.S. space program.”

Many Twitter users were not happy.

Wasn’t it Obama who dismantled the US space shuttle program? Wasn’t it Obama who gave the Russians “a monopoly on space flight”? How could he claim credit for the triumph of Elon Musk, the rebel engineer and SpaceX founder who did what NASA said could not be done?

Musk is no doubt the hero of America’s new dawn in space exploration, but it’s also true that his achievement would not be possible without the radical and unpopular actions Obama took in 2010 that changed the paradigm of US space flight.

Bucking his central planning instincts, Obama embraced a surprisingly laissez-faire approach to space flight that angered political allies and opponents alike.

In doing so, however, he tapped a reservoir of ingenuity and innovation that has ushered in a new age of space flight and exploration.

A New Era in Space Exploration

When Behnken and Hurley splashed into the sunlit Gulf waters on Sunday, it marked a new beginning in space flight.

The successful return of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, which had been sent into orbit with its Falcon 9 rocket, was a milestone in a commercial crew program that began a decade earlier.

In her forthcoming book Bureaucrats and Billionaires, former NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver and reporter Michael Sheetz trace the origins of NASA’s commercial crew program, a revolutionary human spaceflight program that joins private aerospace manufacturers such SpaceX and Boeing with NASA’s astronauts.

Garver writes that this hybrid allows space flight “at a fraction of the cost of previous government owned and operated systems.” A decade ago, however, the program faced opposition seemingly from every side.

The saga began early in 2010 when President Obama announced his intention to abort NASA’s Constellation program—NASA’s crew spaceflight program—correctly pointing out it was “over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation.”

The decision angered almost everyone. As Garver and Sheetz write, the program was “extremely popular with Congress, and the contractors who were benefiting from the tax dollars coming their way.” An impressive array of stakeholders from aerospace companies, trade associations, and astronauts to lobbyists, Congressional delegations, and NASA pushed back.

The resistance was immense.

NASA chief Charles Bolden, while choking back tears, compared the decision to “a death in the family.” Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Charles Krauthammer ominously noted the move would give the Russians “a monopoly on rides into space.” Congressman Pete Olson (R-Texas) called the decision “a crippling blow to America’s human spaceflight program.”

Few commentators seemed to even notice the $6 billion in spending over five years to support commercially built spacecraft to launch NASA’s astronauts into outer space.

Why NASA Needed a New Look

NASA is one of the great stories in America’s tale. From the Space Race to the Moon Landing and beyond, its achievements are part of the American story and ethos.

But by 2010 the agency’s space flight program had grown bloated, tired, and sclerotic. There was no grand vision like the Apollo program of the 60s. There was no awe-inspiring goal. The agency suffered from confusion, delays, and a budget formula that incentivized cost and waste.

Obama wasn’t slashing NASA’s budget—his ask of $19 billion was $700 million more than the previous year—but he was intent on scrapping the Constellation program.

The answer he received was a rare display of bipartisanship: Hell no. Contractors had little intention of losing the contracts they had already won, and they lobbied Democrats and Republicans hard. As concessions, that spring Obama announced the US would send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 (and a later Mars mission) and restored part of the Constellation program, the Orion capsule. The concessions did little to appease those who held interests in Constellation, however.

A Ride to Capitol Hill

In the summer of 2010, Garver, the NASA Administrator, rode to Capitol Hill in the back seat of the president’s town car. She, along with two White House officials, had been summoned by US Senators Republican Kay Bailey Hutchinson and Democrat Bill Nelson who were responsible for oversight of NASA.

She got a good look that day at how Washington sausage making works. It later occurred to her that she was witnessing “the relentless momentum of the status quo in government spending.”

When she arrived at the meeting with OMB Director Jack Lew, she greeted Senators Hutchinson and Nelson. She was told they would agree to fund commercial crew ”if and only if the Administration agreed to have NASA build their own large rocket and capsule—keeping the existing multi-billion-dollar contracts intact.”

Garver had her doubts about the arrangement, but the White House agreed to the proposal. Everyone seemed happy. Obama was able to scrap Constellation and lay the groundwork for Commercial Crew. The Senators had protected their interests. The contractors got paid.

It was a win for everyone, except American taxpayers. They were left on the hook for $50 billion of Constellation’s contracts to build a rocket (at five times the cost) that NASA apparently had no intention of using for decades.

Capture the Flag

The following year, in 2011, Obama called the crew of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, whose flight marked the conclusion of NASA’s 30-year shuttle program. During the call, the president referenced a ”‘capture the flag’ moment” for private space companies seeking to reach the International Space Station (ISS).

“I understand Atlantis also brought a unique American flag up to the station, one that was flown on the very first shuttle mission and one that will reside on the ISS until an American commercial space company launches astronauts to the station,” Obama said.

“Yes Mr. President,” Commander Chris Ferguson responded. “I know there’s a lot of competition out there, a lot of people are fervently working towards this goal to be the first one to send a commercial astronaut into orbit, and we look forward to seeing them here soon.”

Whether he knew it or not, Obama’s flag comments reflect a fundamental change in American space flight: A new space race had begun.

By pulling the plug on Constellation, Obama had unleashed the power of markets and competition. While many associate competition with dog-eat-dog and survival of the fittest tropes, competition is a healthy and productive force.

“The competitive process allows for constant testing, experimenting, and adapting in response to changing situations,” writes Cato’s David Boaz. “It keeps businesses constantly on their toes to serve consumers. Both analytically and empirically, we can see that competitive systems produce better results than centralized or monopoly systems.”

Those who doubt these words need only look to NASA. By the agency’s own admission, they had “not been good at maintaining schedule. And we have not been good at maintaining cost.”

As Elon Musk and others have observed, NASA suffers from an incentive structure “that is all messed up.” As John Stossel recently pointed out, the agency covers contractors’ developmental costs and then slaps on 10 percent. This discourages innovation and incentives cost maximization.

Private companies, on the other hand, have incentives to innovate and control costs. In the case of the commercial crew program, SpaceX and Boeing are on the hook for cost overruns (and they have picked up the tab on multiple occasions).

Because of market forces, SpaceX is doing something NASA officials said was impossible a decade ago: sending people to space affordably. As Stossel points out, an Obama era committee concluded a decade ago that it would take 12 years and cost $26 billion to do what Musk did in 6 years—for less than $1 billion.

In the committee’s defense, they probably weren’t wrong. It would have taken NASA 12 years and $26 billion to do what SpaceX did, if everything went right.

They simply could not have done what Musk did.

Obama’s Greatest Legacy?

There’s no question Obama played a key role in bringing life back to America’s space flight future. By pulling the plug on NASA’s fossilized and bureaucratic shuttle program, he paved the way for private investment, innovation, and vision.

By doing so, Obama radically transformed America’s space shuttle future and ushered in a new era of space exploration.

Yet it’s SpaceX who ultimately deserves the credit for the Crew Dragon mission. NASA is involved in commercial crew flights; they provide the astronauts and certify the flights. But it’s SpaceX and Boeing who’ve shown they are capable of providing two spacecraft at one-fourth the price of NASA’s single spacecraft. The space shuttles are not just less expensive, they are superior and can be reused. While most of the funding to build the shuttle came from a $2.6 billion NASA contract, Musk has shown he can stay on budget while delivering.

“What this heralds fundamentally is a new era in space flight,” a clearly excited Musk to reporters at a press conference following the return of Crew Dragon. “We’re gonna go to the moon. We’re gonna have a base on the moon. We’re gonna send people to Mars and make life multi-planetary.”

Ironically, the rebirth of the US space shuttle program may prove to be the most lasting and impactful achievement of Obama’s presidency.

It’s no coincidence that it was achieved by doing something the 44th president often was reluctant to do: reduce government and harness the power of private enterprise.

Does Democratic Socialism Work Any Better Than Totalitarian Socialism? Well …

When I write about socialism, I often point out that there’s a difference between how economists define it (government ownershipcentral planning, and price controls) and how normal people define it (lots of taxes, redistribution, and intervention).

These definitions are blurry, of course, which is why I created a “socialism slide” to show how countries oftentimes are an odd mix of markets and government.

But one thing that isn’t blurry is the evidence on what works. Simply stated, there is less prosperity in nations with big government compared to nations with small government.

And it doesn’t matter whether socialism is the result of democracy or tyranny.

Kristian Niemietz is with the Institute of Economic Affairs in London. He explained for CapX that mixing democracy with socialism doesn’t fix anything:

Mention the economic failures of the former Eastern Bloc countries, or Maoist China, or North Vietnam, or today, of Cuba or Venezuela or North Korea, and the answer will invariably be: “But that was a dictatorship! That’s got nothing to do with me, I’m a democratic socialist!” …“[S]ocialism means ‘economic democracy’…But the…economic failures of socialism never had anything to do with a lack of democracy. Democratisation improves many things, and is desirable for many reasons. But it does not, in and of itself, make countries richer. …The empirical literature on this subject finds no relationship either way between economic development, and the system of government. …If socialists want to make the case that democracy was the magic missing ingredient… How exactly would democracy have closed the economic gap between East and West Germany, or North and South Korea, or Cuba and Puerto Rico, or Maoist China and Taiwan, or the People’s Republic of Angola and Botswana, or Venezuela and Chile?

Meanwhile, Kevin Williamson pointed out in National Review that post-war socialism in the United Kingdom failed for the same reason that socialism fails anywhere and everywhere it is tried:

History counsels us to consider the first adjective in “democratic socialist” with some skepticism. …the socialism that reduced the United Kingdom from world power to

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Vote by Mail? No Thanks

As a general rule, whatever comes cheap and easy isn’t highly valued. Yet some people these days want to take something once cherished—sacrificed for with oceans of blood and treasure—and reduce it to nothing more than a short walk to the mailbox.

I am referring to the act of voting.

About 110 billion human beings have lived on this planet since Adam and Eve. What portion of that total do you suppose were empowered to cast a secret ballot in a free and fair election? I doubt it was even as much as six or seven percent.

Where do you stand on the question of mail-in voting for this November’s election? It is a hot topic right now, propelled to the fore by the pandemic. One side says that since we are supposed to keep our distance, casting our ballots by mail will avoid circumstances that could spread the virus. The main argument from the other side is that mail-in voting presents unacceptable risks of fraud, dysfunction and uncertainty that would jeopardize the integrity of the electoral process.

Personally, I think those risks are real. Just because a mailed-in ballot gets delivered to the right place at the right time does not mean there wasn’t some hanky-panky at the moment the boxes were checked. But I do know that when you show up at a polling place, it is you and only you who’s checking those boxes in the privacy of the booth.

It took more than a month for the results of several races in the June 23 New York primary to be known, all because of a surge in virus-related mail-in balloting. Roughly 20 percent of mail ballots were ultimately rejected during the certification process. 

Imagine the potential for confusion and abuse if vote-by-mailman were mandated nationwide for legislative, congressional, and presidential contests. Moreover, I am suspicious of the idea because those who are calling for it are pretty much the same crowd that doesn’t want a voter to ever have to produce identification. I think they realize that anything that makes fraud more feasible will help their

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Serbia’s Surveillance Cameras Can Recognize Faces, License Plates

Serbia has been working with the Chinese technology firm Huawei to implement a surveillance system across its capital city of Belgrade.

Officials are touting the effort as a way to fight crime and enforce traffic laws. Critics fear it will further erode privacy and civil liberties in the increasingly authoritarian country.

The Safe City program, introduced in Belgrade in 2018, aims to install 1,000 high-definition cameras equipped with face and license plate recognition software. It’s already installed a few hundred.

Serbian authorities say the system will automatically detect the faces of anyone within the camera’s range, letting it later identify suspected criminals as well as victims and witnesses.

Huawei also claims that the network can help governments expedite crime-solving. The “automatic license plate recognition system greatly assisted police by improving the efficiency of their investigations,” it argued in a 2018 case study. The study cites a 2014 incident where facial recognition technology helped Chinese authorities catch a Serbian fugitive.

Huawei has claimed that its Safe City network is in use in over 230 cities in more than 90 countries, although a Brookings report emphasizes that Chinese firms “have incentives to…exaggerate the popularity of their technology for marketing purposes.”A 2019 Center for Strategic and International Studies investigation found a slightly more modest 73 agreements across 52 countries.

In any case, Serbian civil libertarians are not so optimistic about Safe City’s potential.

“Implementing a system of mass biometric surveillance is a risk to a whole range of human rights such as the right to freedom of opinion and gathering, anti-discrimination, and most importantly the right to privacy and personal data protection,” Danilo Krivokapić, director of the Serbian digital rights watchdog SHARE Foundation, tells Emerging Europe.

The Serbian government’s work with Huawei comes at a time when the country is growing both more authoritarian and closer to China.

Balkan Insight recently argued that China has “replaced Russia” as Serbia’s most prominent ally. The relationship has benefited Serbia with coronavirus aid, foreign investment, and security cooperation

Freedom House’s 2020 “Nations in Transit” report found that democratic backsliding in Serbia was so severe

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