The billionaire CEOs shooting for the moon

Business Editor discusses the role of private firms in space travel

Image: Secretary of the Air Force

LAST WEEK SAW SpaceX successfully launch their new rocket, the Falcon Heavy, into orbit. It’s twice as powerful as the next most powerful rocket, and was launched at one third of the cost, largely due to its reusable boosters. This innovation is the latest in the new wave of spaceflight technology, driven by an influx of billions of pounds from a band of CEOs, each aspiring to be the first to successfully commercialise space travel.

The sky-shattering accomplishments of the Space Race were followed by decades of stagnation in the realm of space exploration. The astronauts of Apollo 11 walked on the moon in 1969, and almost half a century later mankind has yet to set foot beyond it. This tempering of celestial ambition has occurred not because further feats are scientifically impossible, but because financial support for such lofty ideas from national governments has been greatly diminished.

The US and the Soviet Union took the first steps into the greatest unknown more for their potency as propaganda tools than otherworldly curiosity. Once the Cold War ended, much of the impetus behind these early ventures promptly vanished. Without the incentive of international competition, it became hard to rationalise allocating vast sums of taxpayer’s money to exploring the cosmos instead of education and healthcare. NASA’s budget fell from a peak of 4.41 per cent of total US Federal spending in 1966 to below one per cent just nine years later; today it hovers around 0.5 per cent.

Private rocket launch companies have existed for decades, however until recently the industry was dominated by French company Arianespace, who had 60 per cent of the market in 2014. The lack of competition in the market meant there was little incentive for existing firms to innovate in order to reduce costs and make spaceflight affordable.

In the last few years new entrants into the market have emerged, funded by the personal fortunes of their eccentric billionaire founders, private capital from other parties, and NASA contracts. Of these new upstarts SpaceX have made by far the greatest inroads, with their low-cost services forcing Arianespace and leading US provider United Launch Alliance into significant restructuring and cutbacks in an attempt to stem the tide of clients switching to new competitor.

The standard cost of launching a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket currently stands at $61m a pop, in stark comparison with the estimated $420m expense to the US government of a ULA launch in 2012. Advances in the reusability of rockets and launch equipment, such as the successful launch of the Falcon Heavy, have the potential to decrease prices much further still. SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell has claimed it’s possible a reusable Falcon 9 could be launched for as little as $5-7m.

While Musk and his team have surged ahead, their rivals are advancing in the newly invigorated Space Race. Jeff Bezos is selling $1bn in Amazon stock each year to finance his Blue Origin project, although when one-day delivery to Mars will be available remains unclear. Despite repeated setbacks, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic still hopes to be the first to offer lunar tourism in the coming years.

 Some may be concerned about the implications of space exploration becoming the playground of a handful of exorbitantly wealthy businessmen looking to fuel their own egos. But without the intervention of their hubris these extraordinary technological advancements may not occur for generations, if at all. Even for those unmoved by the possibility of exploring the skies above us, the research undertaken by NASA at its peak made many massively beneficial developments in other scientific areas possible, such as prosthetic limbs and freeze-dried food. The surgeon who performed one of the first vascular bypass operations in the 1970s credited its success to four technologies developed by NASA.

It’s doubtless that a watchful eye should be kept on these companies and their activities. Nonetheless, their innovation should be celebrated, and further competition encouraged. If their ambition is well-managed, there’s no telling where Elon and Jeff might take us.

One comment

  1. Unfortunately, inspite of the successful debut of Falcon Heavy, there was still a lot of negativity from some media commentators and amongst the masses.
    For years they castigated tax dollars, euros and rubles spent on NASA, ESA and Roscosmos projects. So along comes SpaceX – doing it on their own dime and time – and still they moan. Perhaps it’s human nature to be more cynical and pessimistic than hopeful and optimistic?
    I, for one, am glad that men like Musk, Bezos and Branson are digging deep because those tax dollars, euros and rubles were not exciting or motivating the masses as much as the space agencies would like to think. Deep space probes and rovers are fantastic but by comparison the International Space Station has never captivated the world as Apollo did. And that is a great pity, because it was also the defining legacy of the Shuttle program.
    No-one cannot say for sure whether it is ego, greed or vanity that created SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic but without these companies our human spaceflight would remain in government hands going nowhere.

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