Come Fly With Me

The average market capitalization of Virgin Galactic Holdings over the past five years was approximately 2.8 billion dollars. If we look at the economic cost of Project Mercury over its life, and using the “Measuring Worth” internet site, which is fairly sophisticated, and convert 1965 dollars into 2020 values, we come out with roughly 8 billion dollars. Tomorrow, when a gazillion more or less sophisticated talking heads–probably less–are waxing eloquent over Mr Branson’s achievement, the Virgin’s market capitalization will probably jump to 14 billion dollars are so.

Think about it.

Not to take anything away from Mr Branson–it may not have been Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight of 60 years ago, but we’ve all seen what can go wrong with these stunts–it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the cost of getting up into the wild blue yonder has really come down. In 1965, they figured it cost roughly 383 million per flight to get a dude into space, a la project Mercury. Virgin Galactic is currently asking 250 thousand per seat. Yeah, you got that right. Basically zilch in Project Mercury terms. So the next time someone tells you prices never come down, they only go up, you might want to gently correct him or her. John Glenn never had it so good.

Now, I know, Glenn and Shepard had space capsules, for Heaven’s sake. Glenn was taking a wild ride on an Atlas Missile that could have well blown up. Hell, it’s general purpose was to rain nuclear Hell down on the USSR, and it looked it. Clunky, kludge, mean, smoking at every orefice. By comparison, Branson’s buggy looks like a modified Cessna riding a rocket engine. Not only does it not radiate testosterone from its phallic bluntness, but it even carried two women. What is this world coming to? Next thing you know, we’ll have a MickeyD on Mars, for those Big Mac Attacks that sneak up on you when you’re looking wistfully back at Planet Gaia. Just wait.

Anyway, you immediately notice that there appears to be a lot less overhead associated with Virgin than there was with NASA. I always had the impression that NASA and its appendages had more of a relation with the military than I wanted to think about, and if there was any part of the government that knew had to spend money, well, they didn’t call it Pentagon capitalism for nothing. Branson, as far as I know, has got none of that. I don’t think his Mission Control is set up for interplanetary travel quite yet. It’s more like a high tech theme park for high rollers, Astro Hertz or something. They put you in the driver’s seat, and, oh, the wonderful places you will go.

But there’s another, I guess, more serious point to be made about the declining cost of fly me to the moon. NASA and its crew cut military pilots and German scientists could only take so much technology off the shelf. Not being an expert in this stuff, I can only interpret some of the horrendous screw ups that occurred as evidence of just that. Branson’s earlier efforts involved a few lives. As late as the Space Shuttle, people were working at the frontiers of technology, and when you’re out there, the costs are high. Rockets explode. Capsules have short circuits and go up in flames. People (like Gus Grissom) die. I don’t know how close we really came to losing Apollo 13, but whenever I read sensational stories about Russian cosmonauts who ended up on a one-way trip to God knows where–and may still be going half a century later–I tend to think were may have been good, but we were also lucky. I could never understand the idea of sending an elementary school teacher into space for grins. Christa McAuliffe would’ve stood a better chance in the classroom, for a change. At least you can see it coming.

I can’t tell you exactly how much technology Virgin Galactic has been able to make use of as a result of not being a pioneer, with all due respect. I assume that whole business of command, control and communication is now pretty much “routine” as opposed to what it was back in the exciting days when you wondered if a capsule coming down in the ocean would ever respond, let alone sink. Someone told me once that a high-end laptop has more computing power that we used to send guys to the Moon. If that’s true, well, go back and read the story of the first moon landing and the malfunctioning computer that made the last 30 seconds to one small step exciting (little did we know). I’m not saying it doesn’t take guts, brains and a lot of nerve to go up in Branson’s Beautiful Balloon. But it’s nothing like what had to be done from scratch years ago. And for that, you can thank the military-industrial-aerospace complex. Branson ought to be giving some of us free rides. After all, in some ways, he’s getting one.

So when you hear all the grousing from certain quarters about government overreach, how the government is the enemy, builds bridges to nowhere, and all that, you might want to think again. About the Internet; civilian airliners, especially from Boeing; GPS, and now, for God’s sake, affordable space travel. It’s not a joke. The worst kept secret in economics–and even some big names like Ed Phelps seem to miss it–is how much the government and its economic spillovers have contributed to a rising civilian standard of living in the United States, and the world, in the last century.

You have a degree in Entrepreneurship? Oh Goody. Now all you need is for someone to show you the money and make sure the property rights in your creation are secure. And then, you too can be a “self-made” person. Just like Richard Branson. Maybe Branson will turn ought to be another Wilbur or Orville Wright. But it’s not like anyone is going to know for at least another century, so for God’s sake, let History decide.

My apologies if this is sort of a duplicate. Technical difficulties here.

Published by RJS El Tejano

I sarcastically call myself El Tejano because I'm from Philadelphia and live in South Texas. Not a great fit, but sometimes, economists notwithstanding, you don't get to choose. My passions are jazz, Mexican history and economics. Go figure

3 thoughts on “Come Fly With Me

  1. Something that interests me is the potential counter example that Branson’s project offers to what Freeman Dyson said about this in _Disturbing the Universe_: that space exploration would never go with the speed that the Europeans’ global exploration went, because so much of 15th-17th European endeavor was done on an “at your own risk” basis. In contrast, he thought (I assume b/c space exploration was expensive), only the government could afford to finance it, and if the government financed it, the public would never tolerate the real risk of death that was ubiquitous in the “age of exploration.”


    1. I don’t know, but I also don’t really understand the impulse to explore space. It seems to me different than exploring one’s own planet. With Branson, Bezos, et al., it’s definitely something about ego.


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