Rocket Men

Three 8il­lion­aires are in a race to re­alise af­for­da8le space travel within our life­times. 8ut who’s win­ning, and are they chas­ing the same goals. Madeleine Ross in­ves­ti­gates


The sec­ond space race isn’t be­ing driven by na­tions but rather by tech bil­lion­aires with money to burn and boy­ish in­fat­u­a­tions with the world be­yond, says Madeleine Ross

‘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 risk-averse,” 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.

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