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On Thursday, SpaceX completed its fourth test flight of Starship, the largest and most powerful spacecraft in history. It was a massive success. The rocket booster made a soft, vertical splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico, while the upper stage finished its journey to orbit and back mostly intact. While we celebrate, we shouldn’t forget that last year, when Starship’s first flight with its booster ended in an explosion, it was widely mocked.

Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos’s space race faced similar treatment, with NBC News publishing an Op-Ed headlined: “Richard Branson space flight beats out Jeff Bezos. But all of humanity loses.” Some of this criticism stems from envy and resentment towards billionaires, but it also speaks to a deeply rooted, underlying skepticism about innovation. For most of human history, we lived in a truly Malthusian environment with strict limits on our population and activities. The historian Stephen Davies theorizes that this scarcity led to strong taboos against risk-taking:

“There are very powerful social practices, norms, and institutions that inhibit innovation. And the reason makes perfect sense because, in a Malthusian world, innovation is very, very risky because most innovations fail. And so, if you use up scarce resources on a new innovative way of doing things, those resources are probably going to be wasted in most cases. And that might be the difference between making it through the winter and starving to death.”

In short, many of us are still, psychologically, living in a zero-sum world. If you believe total wealth is fixed, an exploding rocket looks like nothing more than a burning pile of money. This also helps explain the egalitarian flavor of the criticism, which tended to focus on all the other things that money could have accomplished if it was spent by a charity or welfare program.

The problem with that line of reasoning isn’t that it’s strictly false; the money spent on Starship could have bought food for the hungry or houses for the homeless. The problem is that innovation, with all its risks and waste, is the only thing that can end privation for good. So, while it’s good to celebrate a successful innovation, it’s also important to be brave enough to applaud a failure. Doing so helps hold back the ancient Malthusian impulses that threaten to bind us to stagnation.


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