The Burgeoning Privatized Space Race

By Nash Wills, Co-Editor

Courtesy of:
Courtesy of:

On August 2, 1955, the 20th century celestial competition now colloquially referred to as the Space Race officially kicked off when the Soviet Union responded to a U.S. announcement, made four days earlier, in which the superpower spelled out its intention to launch artificial satellites into orbit. The Soviets’ reply came to fruition as the now infamous Sputnik I, thereby beating out the U.S. to its objective and garnering a lot of public attention in the process. During the two decades that followed, this intergalactic showdown would turn into a Cold War battle for technological and ideological superiority that ultimately culminated in Neil Armstrong’s 1969 iconic “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” In the wake of this historical event, humanity’s ambitions had seemingly been temporarily assuaged, and declining public support combined with ongoing attempts to alleviate tensions with the Soviets saw the contest slowly die out.

At the height of the Space Race, during the Apollo Project in 1966, Federal spending on NASA accounted for 4.41% of the Federal budget. To give you an idea of the sheer gravity of the Apollo program, it cost $20 billion in 1960 USD, or, the equivalent of $206 billion in today’s dollars. It was one of the most expensive scientific projects in American history and the budget for NASA has steadily been in decline since, generally constituting around 1% of the Federal budget since the early 1970s onward.

Neil Armstrong's moon walk; courtesy of
Neil Armstrong’s moon walk; courtesy of

Today, NASA’s budget sits right around an estimated .48% of the overall budget. This has created somewhat of a void, which has led several wealthy entrepreneurs to rise to the occasion and invest hundreds of millions of dollars in private companies dedicated to space exploration, research, space tourism, and other commercial ventures. Recently, the ambitions of these billionaires have created an environment of heated competition in what some have dubbed “the new privatized space race.”

Without question, the two most zealous men leading the charge are Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Each heads up a company with respectively formidable goals. Musk’s SpaceX is determined to not just simply “send a few people to Mars,” but to eventually create “a self-sustaining city” with the objective of turning human beings into “a multi-planet species.” In the short-term window of 2 years however, SpaceX vows to send an unmanned capsule to Mars to start conducting experiments in preparation for welcoming humans by the year 2025. Bezos’s Blue Origin aims to have “millions of people living and working in space,” with the 2018 goal of propelling space tourists into rotation around Earth. Whereas Musk is more concerned with landing people on the Red Planet, Bezos dreams of a day when energy-intensive industry will be moved there, turning Earth into a residential and light industrial zone, thereby potentially saving the planet from pollution and global warming.

Bezos & Musk; courtesy of
Bezos & Musk; courtesy of

The race between these two modern day titans of industry hasn’t been without its fair share of drama. Reminiscent of the Edison-Tesla rivalry, but playing out in true 21st century fashion, most of our evidence of the accruing friction between the duo comes from backhanded jests and subtleties emanating from the Twittersphere. In terms of who’s currently leading the rivalry, most experts would give Musk the edge. SpaceX has been more innovative in rocket development, mostly using the sophisticated and tremendous 15-story-high Falcon 9 rocket boosters to regularly launch satellites into orbit and carry cargo back and forth between the International Space Station for NASA. Bezos, on the other hand, employs a New Shepard model booster, which is apparently far less powerful than the Falcon 9 and unable to make the leap into orbital space.

Although Musk and Bezos are definitely the most prominent pioneers of the final frontier right now, they’re not alone. Microsoft co-founder and space aficionado Paul Allen is working on a pet project called Stratolaunch Systems. His plan involves constructing the largest plane ever built, with a whopping 385-foot wingspan, to be used as an aerial launching point for satellites and other spacecraft. British tycoon Richard Branson is in on the action too. His company, fittingly named Virgin Galactic, claims itself to be “the world’s first commercial spaceline.”

A SpaceX rocket launch; courtesy of
A SpaceX rocket launch; courtesy of

So far the privatized explorers have made some sizable inroads, the most notable of which has to do with the rocket boosters used to power objects into space. Historically, these boosters, as seen in the movies, have always separated from their cargo and plunged into the ocean. Last year though, SpaceX and Blue Origin accomplished the unprecedented feat—previously eluding even NASA—of launching computer-controlled boosters that were subsequently able to re-land on Earth. Why is this seemingly minor achievement such a big deal? Well, it all has to do with cost savings. Recouping these huge boosters saves money, and a penny saved is a penny that can be invested to achieve other more productive ends. And when that penny being saved isn’t actually a penny at all, and is really a $90 million painstakingly complex rocket, these savings start adding up.

With any major success though, there are usually a few failures trailing in their wakes. The story of progress and monumental breakthroughs is fraught with obstacles along the way, and for nowhere else is this truer than in the private space industry. For example: When Richard Branson officially unveiled his eight-seater passenger spaceplane—SpaceShipTwo—to the public in December 2009, wealthy adventurers were quick to sign up in advance for future flights. Over the course of the next 4 years of testing, some 700 people fronted the $250,000 fee for one of these golden tickets. But, in October 2014, a test flight ended fatally when it broke to pieces mid-flight, killing the pilot and temporarily putting a hold on any future operating plans. For all of you would-be astronauts out there, don’t worry, because Richard Branson didn’t become Richard Branson by crashing in the face of setbacks (no pun intended). He’s already back up on the horse, relentlessly testing a new spaceplane named Unity.

A Blue Origin rocket; courtesy of
A Blue Origin rocket; courtesy of

SpaceShipTwo’s death isn’t the most recent high-profile disaster. On September 1st of this year, a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster exploded on its launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida while performing a routine engine-firing test. Although no one was killed or injured in the blast, the exorbitant rocket was destroyed along with its even more expensive cargo: the $200 million Facebook funded Amos-6 satellite, designed to provide internet access to huge swaths of the developing world. This all came after a June 2015 SpaceX mishap when a rocket disintegrated while en route to the International Space Station, and another in January 2016 when a rocket toppled over and blew up while re-landing on a barge in the Pacific Ocean. Even so, accidents like these are a natural part of the overall affair, and its not like we stopped trying to get to the moon after early setbacks.

Branson's SpaceShipTwo; courtesy of
Branson’s SpaceShipTwo; courtesy of

With so much uncertainty surrounding this relatively novel industry, it begs to ask the question: Would you even want to be amongst the first civilians to travel to space if you got the chance? How could you be assured of your safety? If you go down the street and buy a steak from Fry’s, you can be reasonably certain that you won’t wake up with salmonella the next day because the USDA sets standards to prevent stuff like that from happening. Every day, in a country like the U.S., regulatory agencies like the USDA, the FDIC, the FDA, and many more, help protect us from dangers and try to ensure that everyone competes on a level playing field. Currently, no such agency exists for private space flight, and there is a correspondingly heated debate taking place over whether or not the industry should be tightly regulated or not.

In recent years, a Republican-led Congress has taken an arms-length approach towards the matter, and elected to give the newly established market a grace period as it works its way towards maturity. If and when the industry does become regulated, it will more than likely fall under the jurisdiction of the FAA. But, a 2015 law known as the Space Act prevents the aviation administration from mingling in private affairs until at least 2024. Critics think the strategy is negligent and shortsighted, citing the inevitable future catastrophe that will result in a serious loss of life as their reason. Proponents are siding with the invisible hand, and are cautious to try and regulate something that nobody fully understands. So, it appears as though, for at least the near future, you won’t need to go through any TSA screening before making the ascent into the thermosphere.

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