Getting human beings off the planet is the hardest design challenge mankind has ever undertaken. Yet it’s also a solved problem: we’ve been sending people into space since 1961.
50 years later and space feels both closer (NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto!) and farther away (last month’s loss of a SpaceX rocket) than ever before.
Is space about to experience a design renaissance, thanks to privatized New Space companies fronted by international billionaires and Silicon Valley geniuses?
When we talk about New Space, we’re basically talking about two companies and their billionaire founders.
First, you’ve got SpaceX—extremely efficient, extremely practical, yet dreaming of a million people living on colonized Mars. Founded by Tesla’s Elon Musk, SpaceX has made enormous progress: it’s the first privately held company to ever dock with the International Space Station, for example. Even so, SpaceX has had its setbacks, including the explosion of one of its Falcon 9 rockets last month from a broken strut.
Then there’s Virgin Galactic, billionaire Richard Branson’s long-delayed attempt to make traveling to space as easy as jumping on a plane. It has a spaceport (SpacePort America) designed by Norman Foster to rival the best airports in the world, and hundreds of eager passengers sitting on tickets worth upwards of $250,000 each. Yet so far, Virgin Galactic has had very little luck actually getting into orbit. The company’s maiden space voyage is six years late, and following the mid-flight breakup of SpaceShip Two late last year—a catastrophe caused largely by avoidable human error— it’s likely to be delayed even longer.
All of which proves: getting into space is just as hard as it has been since the 1960s. But New Space companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic also have the freedom to innovate in a way that NASA hasn’t since the Moon Landing.
“The astonishing thing that is happening right now is that space is getting back to its roots,” says Nicholas de Monchaux, an associate professor of architecture and urban design at U.C. Berkeley, and author of the book Fashioning Apollo, a history of the Apollo Spacesuit.”The industry is once again focusing on science, and exhibiting the lightness and nimbleness that were lost during the Space Shuttle years.”
One important thing to understand about the history of space exploration is it has largely been driven by politics, not science. By 1961, the Soviet Union had put both the first artificial satellite and the first astronaut in space. As a result, President Dwight Eisenhower challenged NASA: here’s a blank check. I’ll bodyblock Congress for you. If we can’t be the first country in space, come up with a different kind of space race we can conceivably win. Just eight years later, in 1969, NASA had put a man on the moon.
But then things stalled. America had won the space PR war, but now what?
“The Nixon administration was under intense pressure to announce the next heroic thing we’re doing in space,” says de Monchaux. “But there was no longer a propaganda reason to do it, so no one wanted to spend money on it.”
So under his administration, Richard Nixon went back to an idea that had first been proposed 30 years before by famous Nazi rocket scientist, Werner von Braun: a reusable space plane. The result was the Space Shuttle, an albatross of a project that hung around NASA’s neck for the next three decades.
From its inception in 1969 to the day it first launched in 1981, the Space Shuttle was a camel of a horse. It was supposed to do everything: launch satellites, retrieve satellites, have defensive purposes, and so on. The Space Shuttle’s complicated brief served a political purpose in itself, allowing the Nixon administration to kick the can down the road when it came to funding, while taking all the credit for developing it.
“I love the Space Shuttle as an object, but it was a design with an almost impossible brief,” says de Monchaux. It was incredibly expensive, and answerable to too many masters. The president wasn’t covering for NASA in Congress anymore if the Space Shuttle failed. Nor was Congress writing a blank check for it: if anything, NASA was expected to come in under budget on delivering the Space Shuttle. And so NASA became conservative.
In a way, you can think of the Space Shuttle as setting back space travel by miring it in a bureaucracy that stood in impossible opposition to the spirit of purpose and daring that is necessary to put a man in space. But now that the albatross has been cut free from NASA’s neck, allowing it to focus on bold, singularly purposed science missions (like New Horizons, or the Rosetta comet landing) while the private sector focuses on the parts of space that can be commercialized, like space’s touristic possibilities or even materials extraction through asteroid and comet mining.
“The industry is once again focusing on science, and exhibiting the lightness and nimbleness that were lost during the Space Shuttle years,” says de Monchaux. Companies like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX can rapidly iterate, and most importantly, push through failure and turn it into something productive in a way that NASA hasn’t been able to do since the Cold War.
The result is that both newer space companies and NASA itself can be more focused. While NASA laser-focuses on what it does best—expanding our relationship with the cosmos by undertaking scientific missions no public company could justify—the private sector has the leeway to push the boundaries off of getting us off this rock without the threat of being called in before a Senate subcommittee.
Those expecting SpaceX or Virgin Galactic to deliver some Star Trek style innovations in the short term are probably hoping for too much, says Roger Launius, associate director at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. He points out that SpaceX or Virgin Galactic are basically just rehashing technology and ideas pioneered during the Cold War Space Race.
SpaceX is essentially strapping payloads to the tips of modified ICBM missiles, the same way we put Apollo into space. Launius says that in the private sector, Virgin Galactic is pushing the technological boundaries of what’s possible with their rocket plane, SpaceShip Two. Even so, it’s using an approach we’ve used to send planes into suborbital space since the X-15 in 1959: it’s hauling a rocket into the high atmosphere with a conventional airplane.
And besides towing rockets into orbit, or having astronauts crouching on the heads of ICBMs, we don’t really have a lot of good ideas on how to get into space. All we have are concepts like the space elevator, a 22,000-mile cable extending from the surface of the earth to geosynchronous orbit that would use laser-powered robots to tug payloads into space. “We won’t see it in our lives, if it’s even practical at all,” says Launius.
“The way we get into space today is still largely based on 1940’s jet propulsion technology,” Launius says. “We have the ability to fire chemical rockets into space. That’s all we really know how to do. All we can do is make them gradually safer and more efficient.”
None of that’s to say that SpaceX and Virgin Galactic can’t make a huge impact in man’s ability to reach the stars. When Elon Musk says he can put a man on Mars, or Richard Branson says that he wants to open an international space hotel, we shouldn’t bet against them.
When they do it, though, it’s going to be the same way we got to the Moon: by rapidly iterating, powering through failure, and focusing on improving the designs of what we already know works until going up and down from space is as reliable as taking an airplane.