Three billionaires are running the race to make affordable space travel a reality in this lifetime. The question is, who’s ahead in the game?
THREE BILLIONAIRES ARE IN A RACE TO REALISE AFFORDABLE SPACE TRAVEL WITHIN OUR LIFETIMES. 8UT WHO’S WINNING, AND ARE THEY CHASING THE SAME GOALS? MADELEINE ROSS INVESTIGATES
‘We are sitting on the edge of a golden age of space exploration,” declared Jeff Bezos in 2016. The founder of Amazon and Blue Origin, who recently overtook Microsoft mogul Bill Gates as the world’s wealthiest person, was referring to a new chapter in aerospace innovation, a second space race where players are no longer nations but tech billionaires with bold ambitions, fortunes to burn, and boyish infatuations with the beyond. In this quest to conquer the cosmos with Blue Origin, Bezos is chiefly competing with British business magnate Richard Branson and his spaceflight company, Virgin Galactic, and the brash, charismatic founder of Tesla, Elon Musk, and his space technology giant, SpaceX. While the scope of their missions differ, their goals align on two key fronts: to reduce the cost of space travel and to make space accessible to the masses.
Between 1957 and 1975, the US and Soviet Union jockeyed for dominance in space, fuelling giant leaps forward in technology and human spaceflight. This period saw six manned lunar landings, the last of which took place in 1972. Since then, human missions have been limited to the International Space Station (ISS), which is just 400 kilometres above the Earth. When one considers that the moon is 384,400 kilometres away—almost 1,000 times as far from the Earth as the ISS—these most recent expeditions don’t inspire a great deal of awe. “Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos would have grown up watching the space race and I think they would have thought that by now we would be much further out than we are—that we would have had a base on the moon and humans on Mars,” says Christian Davenport, who reports on the space and defence industries at the Washington Post and recently authored Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and The Quest to Colonize the Cosmos.
The US space agency, NASA, retired its space shuttle fleet in 2011, essentially ending its manned space programme. “Over time, NASA has gotten bigger, bloated, more bureaucratic, and more riskaverse,” says Davenport. Since the space age began 60 years ago, the vast majority of spacecraft launched by NASA have been expendable launch vehicles. This means that, after delivering a payload, they crash into the ocean, burn up in the atmosphere, or remain in orbit as space junk. In Davenport’s words, “they were like honeybees sacrificing their lives to use their stinger a single glorious time.” The expense involved in building these single-use booster rockets simply became prohibitive. Furthermore, two fatal missions—the disintegration of the shuttles Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003, which resulted in the deaths of all 14 astronauts on board— made continued investment in the shuttle programme hard to justify. Since then, the US has relied on Russia to get its astronauts to the ISS.
NASA’s retreat, however, coincided with the rise of the tech sector and the creation of a new class of billionaire. “I think Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos grew a little frustrated with the pace of development and growth of the human space programme on the government side,” says Davenport. “These are people with a sort of Silicon Valley-style ethos. They are very hard-charging and impatient.” These men have brought entrepreneurial vigour to the sector, focusing on cost-efficiency. A critical part of their modus operandi is rocket reusability. “If one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred,” Musk claims. As private companies, they also have more freedom to pursue high-risk endeavours, unlike long-time Nasa contractors Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which have to answer to shareholders.
“I think their mentality has been the difference,” says Anna Moore, director of the Advanced Instrumentation and Technology Centre at the Australian National University (ANU). “A group of talented people have been allowed to take a step back and say, ‘If we were to try this again, how would we do it? How would we do it as a corporate venture? If the aim was to make [space travel] accessible, reliable, and cheaper? Let’s reinvent this.’” Moore has served on committees for NASA and the US National Science Foundation, and was part of an expert reference group that recommended the setting up of the Australian Space Agency, which was launched in July this year.
There’s also renewed interest in space from the US government. In August, NASA introduced the first US astronauts who will fly on American-made commercial spacecraft to and from the ISS in 2019— an endeavour that will return astronaut launches to US soil for the first time since the retirement of the space shuttle programme seven years ago. This is part of a broader plan by the Trump administration to revive the flagging space programme, set up a military Space Force, and allocate billions of dollars towards manned missions to the moon and Mars. “We’ve heard this White House talk more about space than the two previous administrations probably combined,” says Davenport. Which means we’re at a critical moment in the history of space travel—the nexus of big egos, deep pockets and an administration that considers space a crucial frontier in terms of defence. Anything is possible. Buckle up; it’s going to be a wild ride.