Free countries will win the new space race

Zineb Riboua

June 23, 2020

During the cold war, the space race between the USA and the USSR triggered an inflection point in world politics. For the first time in modern history, having superior domestic technology meant winning the international war. The stakes were so high that the success rates of these technological endeavours would imply the superiority of either western capitalism or Soviet communism.

Successful Soviet space missions in 1957 and 1961 put the US government on edge. It knew that the reputation of democracy and liberty was on the line. In May 1961, during a joint session of Congress, President John F. Kennedy said:

If we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take.

Now that the USSR has fallen, the primary objective of space explorations across the world is no longer military dominance. Competition between great powers centres not only on territory and resources but on modernity and progress. Space races represent the peak of that.

Freer countries, where markets flourish, have thrived in this area as space travel has commercialised. Meanwhile, other countries such as Russia and China continue to wrestle with bureaucratic systems that do not have room for new innovations.

Ivan Kosenkov, an analyst at the Skolkovo Space Cluster in Moscow, admitted as much. Yes, the pace of space exploration has slowed significantly in light of the lack of interest from the state and a lack of vision for exploration, he said.

Capitalism, by its nature, paves the way for innovation, and therefore progress. As economist Joseph Schumpeter explained, it relies on the visionary drive of entrepreneurs and risk-takers. Conversely, communism relies on central planning and is limited to endeavours which serve government aims and are loyal to the state ideology.

It is therefore only under capitalism that phenomena like SpaceX are possible. The unique drive of the free market alone is pushing Elon Musk to realise his dreams of reducing space transportation costs to affordable levels and colonising Mars.

American commercial aerospace companies have benefited immensely from the market competition present in the US. That has resulted in the cost-effective boosting of spaceflight systems and the efficient development of rocket engines, which would have been impossible if it were not for American liberty.

This is not to say that the state is only and always an obstacle to progress. In fact, partnerships between the public and private sectors which maintain the integrity of the market can often facilitate the utilisation of that same driving force to work towards both private and government goals.

For instance, the recent development of Public-Private Partnerships (P3) allowed for public agencies and private entities to work alongside one another to pursue US national security goals, without suffocating those private companies or inhibiting their innovative approach to space exploration.

The Rocket Propulsion System (RPS) project, for example, was achieved through the collaboration of the US Air Force, SpaceX and Orbital ATK. It is possible and desirable to incentivise the space industry to operate in tandem with the government, rather than against it.

The immense achievements of American space companies have set the stage for the next space race. Only by cooperating with private entities, encouraging entrepreneurs to realise their innovative visions and pushing for increased market competition and enhanced economic growth can that space race be won.


Written by Zineb Riboua

Zineb Riboua is a research intern at the Atlantic Council. She is the founder of the China in MENA Project.


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