Musk, Branson, Bezos, and the New Space Race

Whereas outer space was a domain fought over by nations during the latter half of the twentieth century, the space race now carries on in the private market. The term “New Space” reflects such an opening-up of space to non-governmental organizations. Now, billionaires such as Sir Richard Branson and dot-com titans such as PayPal founder Elon Musk and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos lead the charge into the great unknown.

A question mark has hung over pioneers of space exploration since its inception. Diverting billions of taxpayer dollars to put a man in space was a hard sell, and it took a mix of inspirational speaking, education on the defensive possibilities of infrastructure in space, and patriotic war-cries to carry out NASA’s various missions. And still today, space remains a hard sell because while a venture capital firm can, say, invest $2 million in an app and expect some results (whether good or bad) in a few months, space-minded companies require around that much cash per week and won’t turn a profit for much longer. These programs require massive resources and even more patience, a commitment hard to come by in today’s tech industry. And at the end of the day, these companies have to answer to shareholders.

Development of SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket, known as the BFR, is estimated by Elon Musk to cost anywhere from $2 billion to $10 billion. Although larger than the $1.3 billion that was reportedly invested into the development of Virgin Galactic, neither sum is small by any means. Today, what keeps companies in this industry alive is large financial backing from venture capital firms and individuals who are thinking long-term and often with a childlike fascination with space. According to Sir Richard Branson, of the $1.3 billion invested, $1 billion was his. It’s a mix of curiosity, awe, and fear that never went away, paired with the gaping economic potential of space that encourages such huge investments.

Moving to the private sector has its positives as well. Instead of carrying on the NASA missions as before, companies were forced to find cheaper alternatives to pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into one-use vehicles, essentially a firework worth $100 million. Reusability is key. SpaceX has a rocket in use called the Falcon 9 which can be reused almost indefinitely, while Blue Origins has a reusable propulsion system called New Shepard, which will detach after the payload has cleared gravity and safely steer and land itself back on Earth. Both vehicles takeoff and land vertically.

Another revolutionary concept is the use of small satellites, some even smaller than a toaster. Because the satellites are so small, it is possible to place several satellites into orbit with one rocket. So, the plan is to launch fleets of these satellites, which will decrease costs immensely without sacrificing effectiveness. SpaceX has filed with the Federal Communications Commission for more than 12,000 satellites which will be up and functional by the middle of the next decade, a project known as Starlink. Another company called Planet has launched around a hundred small imaging satellites into space. They are arranged in a line from the North Pole to the South Pole of the Earth. This line hovers above, motionless, while the Earth continues spinning below, allowing these ultra-powerful cameras to photograph and to scan the whole face of the Earth over a 24-hour cycle.

Currently, the financial purposes of moving into space can be split into two large categories: satellites and humans in space. While Virgin Galactic is currently taking deposits for 90-minute flights in the WhiteKnightTwo up to the outer edges of the atmosphere at $250,000 a ride, the huge costs restrict passengers and profit. Branson’s mission is the grand democratization of space, but he has a lot of work to do. So, although the price is huge, the potential profit is not as large as other opportunities. The venture with the most immediate and substantial profit is the reliable and quick launching of various kinds of satellites into space. The purposes of these satellites are widespread, from GPS and communication to weather and Earth observation, with intentions that can be harmless or can be downright nefarious.

For example, communications satellites have been used for television for decades. The 1964 Summer Olympics was one of the first events broadcasted partly with satellites in geosynchronous orbit, which is a type of orbit in which a satellite revolves at the same rate as the Earth, therefore remaining suspended over the same point on Earth continuously. Cell phones nowadays communicate via land-based radio towers, which works well if you live in urban and suburban areas but can become unreliable in more rural areas. This difficulty can be avoided using satellite phones, which communicate directly with a web of satellites in orbit. But one of the most powerful uses for satellites is Internet access, something which has been discussed for quite a while but not yet fully implemented. The aim of Musk’s satellite constellation is to canvass parts of the Earth and to provide Internet access to impoverished or even war-torn regions where a Wi-Fi communications grid might be difficult to organize and near-impossible to maintain.

Of course, the long-term goal is to set feet onto Mars, to terraform and colonize and make livable. But such a gargantuan task requires intermediate steps. For example, as Musk has made clear, all of the rockets in SpaceX carry cargo now, but they are ultimately made to carry passengers. Meanwhile, like Virgin Galactic, Blue Origins is offering reservations for trips to the edge of space for the ultra-wealthy. Although this trip is not yet the revolutionary adventure that Blue Origin is aiming for, such trips could offer much-needed resources for more visionary long-term projects. All three of these companies are tiptoeing around a viable way to reach Mars.

A trip called the “#dearMoon project” is one such event that is helping to fund the development of SpaceX’s BFR. The trip is financed by Japanese billionaire and art collector Yusaku Maezawa, whose mission is to do a flyby of the moon with six or seven influential artists who will use the stunning lunar views for their works on Earth. Originally, the plan was to launch the much smaller Dragon 2 spacecraft with the Falcon 9 rocket. But, partly with the money given by Maezawa, SpaceX has begun development on their larger rocket, the BFR, which would allow a larger spacecraft and therefore a larger crew.

Meanwhile, Blue Origin assures the public that their general mission is not intended to be a rush to space. Instead, they promise to proceed methodically and with as little error as possible, to build the sturdy foundation now that will push future humanity across the solar system. The available resources within the solar system are, compared to Earth, unlimited and completely untapped. There is excitement about the greatest frontier, but this is only the beginning. The opportunities are and will be endless. The human cost will be what separates companies that will succeed in space and companies that will be barred from it, so safety is and should be the primary goal.

Beginning with Kennedy’s speech promising a man on the moon, perpetuated by NASA missions and sci-fi space odysseys, and ever-renewed by stellar events and astrophysics research, the human drive to spread beyond its home is alive and well.  

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