The commercialisation of space: how billionaire visionaries like Elon Musk are reinventing space flight

With ultimate goals of putting humans on Mars, the pace of innovation in space flight is amazingly fast.

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On 6 February at 3.45pm EST, Falcon Heavy lifted off from launch pad 39A at Cape Canaveral, Florida. “I had this image of this giant explosion on the pad, with wheels bouncing down the road and the logo landing somewhere with a thud,” said Elon Musk, the billionaire founder and CEO of Space Explorations Technologies Corporation, better known as SpaceX. Musk had every reason to be worried before the inaugural test flight because, along with his cherry-red Tesla electric car as the payload, and a mannequin called Starman in the driving seat, the 70-metre-tall rocket was carrying the future ambitions of SpaceX.

Almost exactly a month earlier, on 7 January, a Falcon 9 rocket had taken off from the same launch pad carrying a classified cargo. All appeared to go smoothly, but reports emerged that something had gone wrong after launch and the payload, probably a US spy satellite worth billions of dollars, had been lost. Given the secrecy surrounding the mission what happened exactly remains a mystery. As the American technology journalist Joe Pappalardo points out in his serendipitously timed book, the most important element in the intensely competitive, risky world of rocketry is reliability and SpaceX’s was on the line. Now, with the successful launch of Falcon Heavy and the spectacular simultaneous touchdown of two of its three boosters back at the cape some eight minutes after launch, SpaceX has gained a significant edge over rivals.

To date, more than half the world’s satellites have blasted off from a spaceport situated in the jungle on the north-east coast of South America in French Guiana. Built in the 1960s outside the small town of Kourou, the Centre Spatial Guyanais is run by the European Space Agency and supplied by Arianespace, the world’s leading satellite launch company. Arianespace has long maintained its position as the best because it plays it safe. Innovation in spaceflight is always associated with greater risk, yet companies such as SpaceX are reinventing the industry by using their own rockets and spacecraft, and by conducting operations from their own mission control centres.

Spaceports exist, argues Pappalardo, “in a fragile balance of risk and reward, industry and science, physics and politics”.  Yet communities all over the Americas have been jockeying to create spaceports not just for the jobs they will bring, but also for the prestige. Each budding spaceport, from Waco to Wallops Island, has its own vision of a future of dazzling rocket launches.

The sad truth, however, is that unlike Cape Canaveral, the historic home of the Apollo and Space Shuttle programmes, most of today’s spaceports will probably never host a launch. One such facility is outside the aptly named city of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Spaceport America was officially opened in October 2011, just three months after the last Space Shuttle flight. Designed by Norman Foster, it’s the base of Richard Branson’s troubled Virgin Galactic operation.

The rather sinister-sounding United Launch Alliance is a joint venture, established in 2006, between the aerospace giants Lockheed Martin and Boeing to ensure that the US could launch its own spy satellites. Any spare capacity to launch Mars missions and commercial satellites was a bonus. By 2012 SpaceX had broken ULA’s monopoly on government launches, winning contracts by slashing more than $100m from the $380m it claimed the ULA charged per launch. Falcon Heavy, at just $90m per launch and with twice the payload capacity of its ULA rival, will cut costs even further. This is being made possible by modern manufacturing techniques and SpaceX’s ability to design things from scratch, because everything that saves time saves money; and everything that trims weight lowers fuel costs.

Tom Wolfe chronicled the derring-do of test pilots like Chuck Yeager and the Mercury Seven, NASA’s first group of astronauts, in his book The Right Stuff. For Pappalardo those possessing the right stuff are no longer brave test pilots and would-be astronauts, but billionaire visionaries like Musk, whose ultimate goal is to put humans on Mars. Pappalardo argues that with companies such as SpaceX leading the way the pace of innovation is amazingly fast, but that interplanetary travel and even scheduled orbital spaceflights seem as far away as ever. That was before the success of Falcon Heavy. Visions of the future of travel have nearly always been wrong. Yet, as Musk says: “Crazy things can come true.” l

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate About the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

Spaceport Earth: The Reinvention of Spaceflight
Joe Pappalardo
Duckworth Overlook, 240pp, £20

This article appears in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist