Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Regret: How The “Second Harvest” Mentality May Be Killing Innovation In The Space Industry

*** By  Remi Alli   ***

With the announcement of rockets that will be used multiple times we see the media streaming with the realization that the private sector has now entered into the area that NASA has been in for nearly 40 years.  This means we can use the same technology to go into space multiple times with no need for innovation or the creation of new parts.  Factories can shut down, and people can spend more time with their families.  This is the utopian vision that Star Trek gave us, where people could focus on arts because the “new frontier” would provide us with all that we need.

Unfortunately, we saw this reality play out 40 years ago when NASA created the reusable space shuttle. Innovation and excitement in the space industry died, so kids quit looking to science as a “cool” profession.  The companies that make the parts for the rockets scaled-down production, leading to a glut in skilled labor as workers lost their jobs. Congress, sensing the unpopularity of the space recession, slowly directed funding to other projects and we entered into a dark age of space travel. Now the private space industry is not only ignoring the lessons of the past but seems to be building upon the mistakes of the past to make bigger, more catastrophic mistakes.

Exploration relies on innovation, and the space industry is the current pinnacle of human exploration. As the world becomes more compressed by the internet, cheap travel and open borders, we have lost our sense of wonder in exploration. We have become a creature of routine, and like the dodo and the passenger pigeon before us, our patterns will be our downfall. Humanity needs the innovation that is created by striving to be better each time you do something.

The space race and the rockets it created gave us the hope to envision the future as something better than what we have; the same pioneering spirit that let settlers to explore North America, traders to blaze the Silk Road, and our primate ancestors to migrate out of Africa. Hope for a better world, and a better product, drives us, but when we say what we have is good enough, this is when humanity fails.

The danger of reusable rockets does not simply settle on the philosophical concept of not resting on our laurels. We also see the social problem of people losing their jobs because of the need for new products going away.  Making rocket parts is a good job, from the rocket scientist down to the person on the line putting them together.  Reusable rockets reduce the call for these jobs and make it difficult for the field to keep full employment.

These people will find new jobs when they are furloughed, but they will take jobs from less skilled workers, who will, in turn, take employment from unskilled workers. This will create a domino effect that hurts the weakest people in our society.

We also must assume that the people working on rockets, because of their skill, will take away two or more jobs per each one lost, hence magnifying the job loss nationwide.  While the companies laud the tax breaks that we will receive for reusing a rocket, they fail to mention the massive increases in welfare from people losing their jobs.

Even scarier is the reuse model that we have seen in the aviation industry.  Both Delta and Southwest have had catastrophic failures on older planes.  Aviation is not a field that is easy on components; massive vehicles are supported in the air by lightweight materials.  While these materials receive rigorous testing, time and use wears on them and has cost lives. Companies always attempt to save money, but just how many times can we use one of these rockets before it is unsafe and how far will companies push that safety standard?
We have seen this failure play out in the aerospace industry before, when NASA created the space shuttle. The space shuttle did some great things, but the reusable idea, in particular, led to 30 years of little innovation and the Russians, Chinese and other space programs catching up with the United States.

Can the federal government afford to have foreign companies like ExpaceOneSpace and Lavochkin OKB pass up American technology because companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are using the same thing over and over again?

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We need to push for constant innovation if we, as a nation, are going to mine and colonize the stars. Reusable rockets are the antithesis of progress, and policymakers need to address this elephant in the room now while there’s still time.

Remi Alli, JD, MS, a freelancer, has worked for publications such as Forbes and Investopedia, and in her work with Brāv, the premier online platform to manage conflicts (www.brav.org), has been featured in such journals including U.S. News and World Report, MONEY, TIME, The Huffington Post and Yahoo! She is a double award winning techie and a three-time award-winning writer.

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