by Prasad Ganti
The Space Barons
“The Space Barons” is a book by Christian Davenport. It is the story of how the four billionaires are taking on the mantle of space exploration. To fill a void left by NASA. In the absence of public funding, how the billionaires are investing their wealth in pursuit of their childhood passions for space, and possible long term returns. The four billionaires are – Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Paul Allen, and Richard Branson. All four of them share similar goals and dreams, but are approaching in different ways.
There has been no manned space missions after the last moon landing in the 1970s. Except for space stations just a few hundred miles above the earth. US also lost the ability to send astronauts to even this low orbit with the retirement of the space shuttle. Space shuttle has not delivered as promised. The Reusability came with a very heavy price in terms of the cost per launch and also the failure of two space shuttles leading to forteen deaths in space. NASA has relegated itself to unmanned space missions and deep space exploration. Its cheaper, faster, better mantra was slightly effective compared to the past, but still the whole exercise of launches is not as agile.
Elon Musk was an internet entrepreneur who made his money by co-starting and then selling of Paypal. He made good use of the money he made. He started SpaceX, the private company to launch rockets into space. Falcon 1 was the first rocket he built. After several failures, he made progress and moved towards Falcon 9. The number 9 refers to the number of engines the first stage booster has. All the while he fought against the incumbent ULA (United Launch Alliance consisting of Boeing and Lockheed). The chances of his making it was very slim. He did succeed against all odds. NASA also saw a chance in this gritty entrepreneur who was very religious about making the first stage reusable. After a few failures, his Falcon 9 first stage came back and landed. Now it is routine to reuse the first stage again and again. And send supplies on regular basis to the International Space Station. This has altered the economics of the space launches significantly, beating out the ULA launches on both reliability and cost basis. NASA has contracts with SpaceX to deliver cargo and later astronauts into space.
Also, ULA’s rockets used the RD-180 engines for its Atlas V, which are made in Russia. Musk’s engines and the rockets are totally made in the US. Musk has the ultimate aim of building powerful rockets (with 27 engines consisting of 3 Falcon 9 boosters strapped together) to carry people into space and even reach Mars. To colonize Mars as an alternate home to our earth is his vision. In addition, Musk has started the Tesla electric car company and Solar City. A great visionary indeed!
Jeff Bezos of the Amazon fame is another internet entrepreneur who is using his considerable wealth towards larger goals. His company Blue Origin is steeped in secrecy, unlike Musk’s aggressively publicity seeking venture. His rockets named New Shepherd and New Glenn (using BE-4 engine a reliable workhorse, one that could fly again and again at relatively low cost) have done well. Bezos is considered as a tortoise to Musk’s hare like image. He has demonstrated reusability as well. His vision is also to make space launches a commodity. Much like the air travel is today. He conceives of a scenario where millions of people living and working in space. He thinks that earth should be zoned residential and light industrial with heavy industry moving into space. This can happen only when access to space is cheap.
Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft who sold off his stake and left early, invested in building Space Ship One, the first private space plane to go into space and come back and safely land as an airplane. No rocket launches are involved. Designed by the legendary aircraft designer Burt Rutan at Scaled Composites, a mother plane called White Knight one took Space Ship one in its underbelly and then let it go at an altitude. Space Ship one shoots up like a rocket and flies towards space. To fall back, a shuttlecock like design helps it to fall back into earth’s atmosphere without causing much heating. By doing this, Allen claimed the Ansari X-prize for the first private space plane to go to space and come back, twice in a two week period.
But Allen developed some fear while his test pilots were executing the rides into space and back. Richard Branson, the entrepreneur who made his money in the Virgin group of companies, took over the development of Space Ship two from Allen. With the idea of promoting space tourism. Branson made some progress towards this goal, but is not there yet. I am assuming it is only a matter of time before he starts taking people up into space.
In the meantime Allen came back into the space business with the building of a massive plane called Stratolaunch, similar in concept to the White Knight one. It can carry multiple space planes to an altitude and launch them from there. A reusable space plane which can be launched from anywhere in the world and come back and land like a normal aircraft, is his goal.
Each of the four entrepreneurs is democratizing the access to space. Space, which was the exclusive purview of the governments, now has successfully passed on to private hands. With the nimbleness to make quick progress and the efficiencies to lower the costs, the next few decades will never be the same as the past. I am sure space travel will become the mainstay.