Later this year, tech entrepreneur turned space pioneer Elon Musk is planning the blastoff of a new rocket, the Falcon Heavy, that would be twice as powerful as any other in use and one of the biggest since the Apollo era’s mighty Saturn V. The stage for the rocket’s debut: the Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A, where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took off for the moon in 1969.
SpaceX’s use of 39A is the ultimate symbol that the government’s monopoly on space travel is over. To Musk, it also is proof of an additional triumph — over his fellow billionaire and rival Jeffrey P. Bezos, who had fought to secure the launchpad for himself.
Nearly five decades after the United States beat the Soviet Union to the moon, another space race is emerging, this time among a class of hugely wealthy entrepreneurs who have grown frustrated that space travel is in many ways still as difficult, and as expensive, as ever. Driven by ego, outsize ambition and opportunity, they are investing hundreds of millions of dollars of their own money in an attempt to open up space to the masses and push human space travel far past where governments have gone.
Musk, who made his first fortune on Zip2 and PayPal, and Bezos, who founded Amazon and owns The Washington Post, are the most prominent of a quartet of billionaires aspiring to open the frontier of space the way the public-private partnerships of the 19th century pushed west at the dawn of the railroad age.
The two others are Paul Allen, a Microsoft founder, and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson. All have upended industries, including retail, automobiles and credit cards, and are now embarking on the greatest disruption of all — making space travel routine — in a business long dominated by commercial-space contractors such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
While their efforts have reignited interest in space, they also have raised moral complexities and regulatory challenges in pursuing an endeavor that is inherently dangerous. Congress has opted to regulate the industry only loosely, granting it an extended “learning period” that would allow companies to grow and to practice space travel.
Already, one pilot has died in the quest to make commercial space travel a reality. But his sacrifice came in the service of a company, Scaled Composites, that was operating a spacecraft for Virgin Galactic, not a government acting in the national interest. Some critics, such as Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.), said that safeguards should not be overlooked.
“When the inevitable accident with significant loss of life occurs — whether it’s a year from now or five years from now,” she said, “the American public will look back at what we are doing today and ask how we could be so shortsighted?”
Since late last year, when Musk and Bezos traded what were interpreted as barbs on Twitter over who pulled off the most daring feat in space, they have apparently entered a detente, with peace offerings, even words of encouragement.
But there is something about the exchanges that still bothers Musk, who in a recent interview wanted to make it clear: Space is not orbit.
That’s what he meant when he lit up Twitter after Bezos’s Blue Origin flew a rocket to the edge of space and landed it at its West Texas test range, a feat that NASA has never achieved. Bezos declared the reusable rocket “the rarest of beasts.”
“Not quite ‘rarest,’ ” Musk shot back, pointing out that SpaceX has previously launched rockets in test flights and landed them after relatively short trips. In a series of tweets, he vowed something even more spectacular, and difficult — landing a much larger and more powerful rocket capable of traveling many times the speed of sound, which is required for going into orbit.
Later, after SpaceX landed its Falcon 9 rocket, Bezos tweeted what many considered a backhanded compliment: “Welcome to the club!”
Months later, Musk still was fixated on it. Bezos’s Blue Origin may have crossed the boundary into “space,” a somewhat arbitrary barrier generally agreed as starting at 62 miles above Earth’s surface. But Musk’s SpaceX spacecraft don’t just go up; they go up and out, following an arc and moving so fast — about five miles per second — that they stay aloft and can circle the Earth in less time than it takes to watch “Star Wars.”
Reaching the threshold of space is a somewhat simple up-and-down endeavor — “like shooting a cannonball up and then the cannonball falls down for four minutes of free fall,” Musk said.
Orbit and space “are different leagues,” Musk said.
The tension began appearing in legal briefs in 2014. SpaceX challenged a patent held by Blue Origin that gave it the right to land rockets on floating barges at sea — a feat SpaceX has now pulled off multiple times.
The point of landing the rockets, though, is to reuse them, which then would dramatically lower the cost of space flight. SpaceX has yet to refly any of its rockets, although it says it plans to this year. Blue Origin, by contrast, has flown the same booster four times in test flights, showing that recovering the rocket is not the same as reusing it.
And there was Launch Complex 39A. Musk won the lease in 2013, but Blue Origin filed a legal protest, arguing that the criteria NASA used to come to its decision were flawed. Musk derided the protest as a “phony blocking tactic and an obvious one at that.”
Blue Origin had not yet sent a rocket to space, which Musk eagerly pointed out, and did not have one qualified to carry people.
“If they do somehow show up in the next 5 years with a vehicle qualified to NASA’s human rating standards that can dock with the Space Station, which is what 39A is meant to do, we will gladly accommodate their needs,” Musk wrote in an email published at SpaceNews.com. Then, in a taunt that shot across the Internet, he added: “Frankly, I think we are more likely to discover unicorns dancing in the flame duct.”
At the time, Blue Origin was tight-lipped about the remarks. But years later, it responded by announcing that Bezos had secured a spot of his own at Cape Canaveral: Launch Complex 36, just down the road from 39A, so he and Musk will be neighbors.
It was supposed to have happened by now: space tourism. Bases on the moon. Humans to Mars and beyond. The next giant leap. And the next.
Bezos was 5 years old during the Apollo 11 moon landing and remembers watching it on his living-room television with his parents and grandparents. “It was a seminal moment for me,” he has said.
In 2013, he embarked on a three-week quest to recover from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean the F-1 engines used in the Apollo-era Saturn V rockets. Using deep-water rovers, his team found its quarry: castaway engine parts, more than three miles down, deeper than the wreck of the Titanic. Where others might have seen piles of rusted debris fit for a junkyard, Bezos saw art. “A magic sculpture garden,” he called it.
After Musk sold his first company, Zip2, to Compaq, for more than $300 million, he started thinking more seriously about space exploration and wondered when NASA was planning on getting to Mars. He searched the space agency’s website for its Mars plan but could not find one.
“Because, of course, there had to be a schedule,” he said in a 2012 speech. “And I couldn’t find it. I thought the problem was me. Because, of course, it must be here somewhere on this website, but just well-hidden. And it turned out it wasn’t on the website at all, which was shocking.”
Musk, who also runs Tesla Motors, plans to send an uncrewed spacecraft to Mars as soon as 2018, and hopes that people could arrive by 2025. While that seemingly impossible goal remains aspirational, SpaceX continues to build bigger and more powerful rockets, and has disrupted the existing commercial and military launch markets by offering affordable and transparent prices.
Last year, however, a unmanned Falcon 9 rocket carrying cargo to the International Space Station blew up, forcing the company to delay all launches for six months. But it now has a backlog of more than 70 missions representing more than $10 billion in revenue.
“We’re sort of checking the various boxes that are needed to do this,” Musk said, “while providing useful services to NASA and commercial companies.”
As a child, Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, knew the names of the Mercury 7 astronauts, as if they were the star players of his favorite baseball team. “Like countless other boys, I planned to become an astronaut when I grew up,” he wrote in his memoir. “For sheer adventure, you couldn’t beat outer space.”
In 2004, Allen teamed up with legendary aerospace engineer Burt Rutan to develop SpaceShipOne, which won the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million contest, and became the first commercial vehicle to reach space. Allen licensed the rights to the technology behind the spacecraft to Branson and concentrated on other interests.
But now he’s back. He is building Stratolaunch, that would become the world’s largest airplane with a wingspan wider than a football field, end zones included. It is designed to carry a rocket tethered to its belly to an altitude of about 35,000 feet. The rocket would drop away from the plane, fire its engines and “air-launch” into orbit.
Branson’s goal is to create the first commercial spaceline. And he is proud that more than 700 people — more than the approximately 550 people who have actually been to space — have bought tickets to ride on his spacecraft, some paying as much as $250,000.
“Perhaps it is in our culture, perhaps it is in our DNA, or perhaps it is a bit of each of those, but we humans seem hard-wired to explore,” Branson’s Virgin Galactic says on its website. “But because government space agencies are not asked to help ordinary citizens to become astronauts, most of our planet’s seven billion people have had no opportunity to experience space and all of its possibilities for themselves.”
The last time the United States was not able to launch its own astronauts to space, the hiatus lasted 2,098 days, from the last of the Apollo-era missions in 1975 to the first space shuttle flight in 1981.
Today, NASA is again in a hiatus, this one beginning when the shuttles were retired in 2011. But now there is a painful twist: The United States has to rely on Russia, the country it bested in the Cold War race to the moon, to ferry U.S. astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
That is expected to end by late 2017, or early 2018, when a cadre of carefully chosen NASA astronauts would board a spacecraft on the Florida Space Coast and launch from U.S. soil. That historic moment would feature a rocket that for the first time would be owned and operated by a commercial company, not NASA.
Today, SpaceX and Boeing, the companies that NASA is entrusting with the lives of its astronauts, are vying to see which will fly first. The victor would become the company that restores U.S. human spaceflight in what would be one of the most tense and dramatic launches in decades.
Then could come the birth of regular commercial space-tourism trips. Wealthy ticketed passengers, fresh off days of space training camp, could board a private spacecraft, buckle into luxurious window seats and shoot just past the edge of space, where they would float weightless, joining the ranks of the world’s first space tourists in a flight that would last several minutes.
Virgin Galactic had said its first flight would be as early as 2009, but that has been delayed again and again, most recently when an aircraft came apart during a test flight, killing the co-pilot.
Since then, the company has rebounded, unveiling its new spacecraft earlier this year. While Virgin Galactic no longer gives a timeline, Bezos has said he believes Blue Origin could start taking tourists by 2018.
Branson and Bezos, both known to prize customer service, are honing their sales pitches, one promising a concierge to the cosmos and the other promoting windows the size of doors for a better view.
But while the companies say they are not in a race to see who flies customers first, some corporate jockeying is underway. Branson has said he thinks people would prefer the comforts of SpaceShipTwo, a space plane that would land on a runway, over a rocket launch that would propel a thimble-like capsule into space and then land under parachutes.
“We believe going into space in a spaceship and coming back in that spaceship, on wheels, will be a customer experience that people would prefer than perhaps one or two other options that are being considered,” he said in an interview late last year. “And we’d love to see whether we’re correct about that.”
To these space barons, the dawn of this new Space Age is similar to the advent of the personal computer and the Internet. Regular access to space is a new catalyst for innovation, one that as Allen recently said, “holds similar revolutionary potential.”
He, Musk and Branson have plans to launch constellations of small satellites. These satellites could more affordably beam the Internet to the billions who are not now connected, provide better communication and allow companies and governments to continuously monitor events on the ground — including phenomena as diverse as wars and agriculture.
“When such access to space is routine, innovation will accelerate in ways beyond what we can currently imagine,” Allen said. “That’s the thing about new platforms: When they become easily available, convenient and affordable, they attract and enable other visionaries and entrepreneurs to realize more new concepts.”
For years, many have been waiting for the commercial space industry to become a real market, one where companies actually make money and prosper. William Gerstenmaier, the head of NASA’s human spaceflight division, said he thinks that the industry “is on the crest of another wave.”
“There’s a lot of hype,” he said at a Federal Aviation Administration space conference this year, citing other times when industry felt it was on the cusp of revolutionary change.
“But will we be able to generate enough demand?” he said. “It can’t just be solely government demand. It has to be augmented by the private sector. . . . Will that be enough to push us over or to reach that tipping point that actually enables this industry to become more self-sufficient than it was in the past?”
Bezos, Branson and others are betting that there will be enough demand — especially if they’re successful in getting to space quickly and easily, like flying a plane. Bezos has talked about building “the highway to lower orbit” so that the next generation “will be able to use that heavy infrastructure that I put in place so there can be a huge dynamic entrepreneurial explosion in space.”
His goal is eventually to establish such a transportation link that all heavy industry could be moved off Earth into space, where companies could mine asteroids for their precious metals. Earth, then, could be preserved as if it were exclusively zoned “residential and light industrial,” he said.
Musk is focused on Mars.
“It’s fundamentally about transport. Without transport, you can’t get there. You need to build the Union Pacific,” he said. “Once there’s a transportation link established to Mars, it’ll open up incredible entrepreneurial opportunities for anyone that wants to go there and establish everything from the first iron foundry to the first pizza joint to things we don’t even conceive of on Earth that are just new on Mars.”
That effort will be exceedingly difficult, and probably even fatal, he said. The timeline Musk has laid out is incredibly ambitious, with the first unmanned flight coming as soon as 2018. Of the 43 robotic missions to Mars, including fly-bys, attempted by four countries, only 18 have been total successes. No private company has ever dared try it before, and SpaceX has yet to fly the Falcon Heavy, which has been delayed repeatedly because of technical challenges.
In the past, such bold, “because it is hard” pronouncements were made by presidents, not billionaires. But Musk and Bezos are now cast in a sort of Cold War reenactment, performing the roles once held exclusively by nations and their heroes.
Bezos’s rocket is named after the first American astronaut, Alan Shepard, who reached the edge of space in a 15-minute ride in 1961. But unlike his Soviet counterpart, Yuri Gagarin, Shepard did not reach orbit. That would not happen for the Americans until the next year, when John Glenn rode a more powerful rocket.
Bezos, too, is preparing his next giant leap: producing by the end of the decade a rocket that can reach orbit. By then, though, Musk could be shooting for Mars.