Sometimes, success has unforeseen consequences. The United States Space Force and Air Force (and NASA) have, in essence, decided they will simply procure space launch as a service from SpaceX. This isn’t an actual decision but is nevertheless true enough, as it has become the default situation. Cost and availability — the comparative ease of getting a launch slot — have resulted in tremendous business success for SpaceX.

An unforeseen consequence of this success is that the Space Force, the Air Force, and NASA have deprioritized rocket research and development efforts that would foster continued independent space access. Some programmatic officers would suggest there is no need for the government to continue to pursue rocket science. SpaceX is doing the required R&D, so why spend money on anything other than what’s needed for deep space?

Imagine if the U.S. government had decided to stop further aircraft R&D because the Ford Tri-Motor was finally flying between Cleveland and Chicago. After all, Ford was a great industrialist in the late 1930s who obviously knew where this sort of investment needed to go far better than someone in a government lab. And had it not been for Ford’s close ties to German industry (and his equally shameful attitude towards ethnic minorities here in the U.S.) such might have been our history. But then-President Franklin Roosevelt kept the U.S. government working on incremental and breakthrough technology.

This sort of attitude — where the government spends money on what’s available now instead of investing in the development and implementation of new technology — isn’t new. The Air Force fought the development and procurement of GPS hammer and tong. Why? Developing, buying, and deploying GPS took away money that could be used to purchase more F-16s; GPS didn’t put rubber on the ramp.

This was a short-sighted view, but it is a typical view through the decades. It’s as if the Air Force were arguing in, say, the 1930s, that the money being spent on the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) should instead be used to put more Brewster Buffalos (F2A-1s) on the ramp. Even though that NACA money didn’t put more airplanes on the ramp, had it not been spent our World War II aircraft would have been without the NACA cowling, or without better wings, propellers, and superchargers.

None of those developments were revolutionary, like the advent of the jet engine or the swept wing would be. It was all incremental development and research. That’s the point. It was incremental changes, resulting from NACA research, that increased the lethality of every U.S. warplane. They were technologies that were available at the very start of WWII, already integrated into U.S. aircraft.

They were there, available, at the right place, and the right time. And even though this investment meant fewer aircraft available at the start, it produced deadlier ones — P-38 fighter/bombers  than-outdated Brewster Buffalos.

One more battleship wouldn’t have helped at Pearl Harbor; 10 more bombers wouldn’t have helped at Clark Field. WWII was won instead by the investment in infrastructure, industrial base, and the R&D that produced the proximity fuse, electronic computers, and the nuclear bomb.

But it is difficult to tell military personnel on the front line that there will be fewer ships and jets, right now, because they need industrial base, dry docks, factories, supply chains, and new ideas. It’s a tough trade-off to sell to your typical military officer.

One needs “seed corn” for King Harvest to surely come again. One always needs to be planting, and then putting some of the corn off to the side for the next planting. China seems to understand this point. It is putting lots of money and resources into research and development of state-owned and operated reusable rockets, deep throttling rocket engines, and other rocket science and technology.

NASA and the Space Force and the Air Force all need to continue to invest, instead of cutting back on basic R&D activities. This is extremely hard to do when your budget is being cut. But it is utterly necessary if we want to be ready for the next great challenge.

Tim Kyger is a former Congressional staffer and Pat Bahn is CEO of TGV Rockets, a small advanced propulsion company.

Tim Kyger is a former staffer in both the U.S. House and Senate, including a stint on the professional staff of the Senate Commerce Committee’s science, technology and space subcommittee. He has 27 years of experience in the policy community.