When SpaceX launched its Falcon Heavy rocket in early February, it was one of the best public relations events in the recent history of space exploration–and not just because Elon Musk’s company put a Tesla into the heavens.
Millions of people watched the launch and saw SpaceX try to bring all three rockets back to Earth, ultimately crashing one just a few meters away from its at-sea droneship landing pad. What brought everyone together was the exciting promise of a private space company showcasing its massive rockets–and the potential promise of carrying massive payloads into the skies at a radically cheap price. Never mind that NASA appears to have lost some interest in the Falcon Heavy; the public is on board. You would think that eventually, the space agency would have to follow.
The private space race has been in full throttle for several years now, with some of Earth’s richest people pushing many of their chips into the middle of the table in a bid to come out on top. And that’s what Quartz reporter Tim Fernholz explores in his new book, Rocket Billionaires: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the New Space Race.
Recently, I got ahold of Fernholz to see how much stock we should put into the efforts by Musk, Bezos, and other tycoons to win the race.
Fast Company: Why did you want to write this book?
Tim Fernholz: Because it seemed like a big piece of history was happening and it wasn’t getting the attention it deserved. It’s sort of a pivotal moment in the way humanity engages with space, and it’s an exciting story, and it’s got a lot of implications for the future, too.
FC: Why wasn’t it getting the attention it deserves?
TF: I think it’s easy to discount a lot of these guys, and a lot of these companies, as being kooky, or making claims they can’t back up. Only in the last five years have we seen these companies prove that it is a new generation, and they can do things that NASA did, and even things that NASA can’t do.
FC: It sounds like you believe these people should be taken seriously as players in the space industry?
TF: Yeah, and I think anyone in the space industry would say that’s an objective fact now. If you look at especially SpaceX’s impact on the global launch industry–the Europe satellite launch company Arianespace, United Launch Alliance, the Boeing-Lockheed joint venture–have all had to dramatically change their business plans because of SpaceX’s success, which has opened up a lot of opportunity for new companies following in their wake, a lot of funding, and a lot of willingness to believe in business models that haven’t been tried before.
FC: Why do you think SpaceX has been so successful? What are the one or two things that they really did right that got them to this place?
TF: It’s a couple different things. One is they started from a blank slate, and they didn’t get drawn into status-quo industry problems, whether it’s funding models, or subcontracting, or not trusting off-the-shelf components. They really said, let’s do this as cheaply as possibly, and make that our goal.
The second thing is a willingness to take risks that NASA didn’t have, particularly in investing in this reusable rocket system that has allowed them to make their spacecraft much cheaper than their competitors’.
FC: There were so many consecutive times when the Falcon 9 exploded. Do you feel like they just kept their confidence that it was going to work eventually, or did they ever lose some confidence?
TF: I think there were points where they were like, “If we don’t succeed in flying this rocket next week, we’re going to run out of money and close up shop.” But I think they always believed that they could accomplish their goals. The difference is if NASA had a reusable rocket program that blew up as many rockets trying to land them as SpaceX did, Congress probably would have canceled that program. But because SpaceX is controlled by Elon, he said, “Let’s keep going.”
FC: What are the stakes for this new space race?
TF: Hypothetically, billions of dollars in business, both for launching satellites, which is something that Musk is doing, and Jeff Bezos wants to do with Blue Origin; and in operating satellite constellations, which a bunch of different people, including SpaceX, OneWeb, Boeing, LeoSat, are all putting billions of dollars into. And then possibly, these guys are driven by the hope of taking humanity into space on a permanent basis, and that’s what they want to achieve. It’s still kind of far-fetched, but they are building the tools that will allow people to do it. And I think you have to look at what they’re doing, and say, “Okay, this is something we have to think about as a possibility.”
FC: What does the private space race mean for national agencies like NASA?
TF: On the one hand, it means they’ll be able to buy access to space a lot more cheaply than they have in the past, so that can mean more frequent space probes to other planets to do research. It’s going to hopefully mean the return of human spaceflight for the United States, for the first time since 2011, when Boeing and SpaceX fly astronauts later this year and early in 2019, and it’s also going to mean a rethink of what their mission is. When the Falcon Heavy launched last month, it was a wakeup call to NASA that these private companies are capable of doing really big tasks, like operating the largest rocket in the world, and they need to think, “Well, what is the government’s best place to focus their resources, and how can we leverage the private sector to do that?”
FC: Ultimately, how do you think the public benefits from this private space race?
TF: You can see it already just as taxpayers because now the government’s paying much less to launch military satellites or GPS satellites, because SpaceX came in and disrupted that market. So that’s a key thing. I think there’s a lot of promise in different satellite business models that can deliver internet connectivity more cheaply, television more cheaply, enable internet-of-things stuff, and already space is fundamental to how we live. Every financial transaction, practically, that you make is timed by the GPS system.
The U.S. military also depends on space to do its thing. So you’re relying more on space every day than you may realize.
FC: What will readers be most surprised to learn?
TF: The thing that surprised me a lot, coming into this as someone who was not a space expert, is how much history there was of people trying and failing to do this, to start private organizations that will do space flight and space activities.
In the ’80s there were companies that tried and failed, in the ’90s there were companies that tried and failed. And only in this new generation are we seeing people succeeding, which is why it’s really noteworthy. But it was interesting to read one of the works I came across, by Alexander McDonald, who’s an economist who works at NASA, and he has put together this data set that shows wealthy people, billionaire-equivalents, have been investing in private space exploration for well over a century now.
It’s just back in the 18th century, it was building a huge telescope. So the wealthiest man in California built a huge telescope observatory, and that happened in the 19th century. And now the wealthiest man in the world, Jeff Bezos, is building a huge rocket to build space stations in space. So history tends to [repeat itself].
FC: How much fun did you have writing this book?
TF: I had a lot of fun. I got to go to a lot of rocket launches, which was really cool. I got to visit a lot of high-tech facilities where people a lot smarter than me explained rocket science to me, which I found very enjoyable. And I got to meet a lot of people who are very passionate about space and the future, which is always exciting. And I got to meet Elon, which was fun, too.