It was from launchpad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, in Florida, that Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins lifted off for the moon in 1969. It was from there, too, that the disastrous missions of the space shuttles Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003 took off. But today, nine years after the last mission of the Atlantis space shuttle, only weeds emerge from the scorched asphalt. For nearly a decade, the United States has been left without a human launch system. When it has wanted to send its astronauts to the International Space Station, it has been compelled to buy places on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, which were launched from Kazakhstan.
In the meantime, at NASA, they were left wondering what to do with a rusting launch facility. Then, in 2014, the perfect client appeared: the eccentric billionaire engineer Elon Musk, who made his initial fortune from the sale of PayPal. The founder of the electric vehicle company Tesla and of the space exploration company SpaceX, Musk took a 20-year lease on the site. He wasn’t the only tech baron who entered a bid. When Musk’s bid was accepted, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and of the aerospace firm Blue Origin, moved quickly to lease the adjacent complex, No. 36, from which the probes were launched to Mars and Venus in the 1960s and 1970s.
Last Saturday, the fire was again ignited at launchpad 39A. NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley blasted off for the ISS in a Dragon capsule. “Launch America” was the name NASA’s PR folks gave the widely covered event. The United States, it was said, had resumed launching astronauts from American soil. In fact, only the soil was U.S. property. The spacecraft, the launcher, the launch devices, even the spacesuits – all are the private property of SpaceX. The appearance of the NASA logo, which was displayed proudly on the spacecraft, was purchased. By the same token, it could have been the Coca-Cola logo that appeared there. Thus, as of the moment when these lines are being written, only three powers in the world have the capacity to launch astronauts into space: Russia, China and Elon Musk.
To understand how this situation came about, we need to go back to 2010. As the end of the space shuttle program approached, the Obama administration decided to shift to outsourcing. Instead of investing government resources in transporting cargo and people into orbit around Earth, NASA would focus on deep space ventures, such as preparation for a manned flight to Mars. As part of the plan, it was decided that NASA would develop the heavy-lift SLS (space launch system) rocket and the Orion spacecraft that would launch on it. At the same time, the federal government would encourage private investors to develop launch systems for near space – moon tourism, for example – and would underwrite trips for its NASA astronauts to the International Space Station.
The new space revolution is deceptive. To an observer on the side it looks as though commercial firms are competing with NASA. Actually, NASA is both the principal investor in the companies and their biggest client. The space agency has funneled more than $8 billion to Boeing and to SpaceX over the past decade, most of it earmarked for the development and production of launchers and spacecraft. The rest of the funds are intended to purchase 12 flights to the International Space Station for NASA – six in Musk’s Dragon and six in Boeing’s Starliner, which is also due for a debut manned launch as early as next year.
NASA is proud of the program: It has led to the development of two independent systems for sending humans into space at half of what that would cost the government. After all, the businesspeople also chipped in with a few dollars. But in the meantime, a few things happened – and a few things didn’t happen. The inauguration of NASA’s SLS has been repeatedly postponed, and the agency’s Orion spacecraft has also not yet lifted off. And China landed rovers on the moon.
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During the past few years, Beijing has been investing vast sums in an effort to attain American capabilities. Already now it is leading in launches: Last year, of 102 devices launched into space, 34 were Chinese and only 27 were American in origin. This year, China is planning to launch no fewer than 48 satellites, shuttles and other mechanisms, and to leave the West in the stardust. China is eyeing the moon, and there’s concern in the United States that a taikonaut – as the Chinese call their astronauts – will plant the red flag on Earth’s satellite 50 years after the Americans left it – an image that will symbolize a new world order.
Which is why President Donald Trump signed an executive order in his first year in office instructing NASA to land an American on the moon by 2024. Mars was again shunted aside. In March, NASA announced that three companies, including those of Musk and Bezos, would compete for the privilege of bringing America back to the moon. The competitors received development grants totaling $1 billion; early next year we will learn who won the hefty contract. As for NASA’s SLS and Orion projects, they have been put on ice indefinitely. The United States will bel returning to the moon in a private spacecraft.
Actually, the heavy-launch vehicle that sent Armstrong and Aldrin to the moon was built by Boeing, and the capsule in which they landed was a product of the Grumman Corporation. But the U.S. government had purchased those fantastic machines from the manufacturer, the way one buys a car. In contrast, the spacecraft of Musk and Bezos will operate like leased cars. The United States will invest in their development, but in the end they will remain in the garages of Musk and Bezos. At the conclusion of NASA’s contract, the most expensive space assets in the world, which can do what rockets and launchers that were developed by a superpower like the Soviet Union are unable to do, will be in the private and exclusive hands of two super-tycoons.
We got a glimpse into the future of privatized space in 2018, when Musk launched his red Tesla Roadster car into space in a Falcon Heavy launcher test flight. It was a brilliant marketing gimmick: The electric sports car entered into solar orbit while its sound system played David Bowie’s “Starman” in a loop. According to Musk, he wanted to inspire people; according to others, he wanted to boost the value of Tesla shares. Be that as it may, in the coming decade Musk will be capable of sending his car to the moon, to Mars and in fact to every corner of the solar system.
If the first flags to be planted in the soil of Mars are those of Tesla or Amazon, will it mean that 'the Americans' got there first?
In the meantime, Musk did not hesitate to transport Behnken and Hurley to last weekend’s launch in a Tesla Model X: Millions watched as the NASA astronauts got into that shiny new, Musk-produced car. When the Apollo 8 crew orbited the moon and recited verses from the Book of Genesis, American atheists sued the administration on the grounds that public funds must not be used for religious propaganda. But an advertisement for a car? In Donald Trump’s USA, not a single eyebrow was raised.
This is just one example of the United States’ growing dependence on the good will of businesspeople. Musk is dreaming of settling a million people on Mars. He has declared that he doesn’t want to be one of the first pioneers to land on the red planet, only to retire there, but who knows what will happen at the moment of truth? Perhaps after his space taxi successfully delivers NASA astronauts to the moon, he will change his mind and decide to launch himself in the inaugural mission to Mars.
That will be his prerogative. Musk is committed to getting NASA astronauts to the moon. He is not committed to getting NASA to Mars as well, even though the same spacecraft, with government financing, is serving both destinations. If Musk or Bezos wish to upstage NASA, they may find themselves competing with the agency. Toward the end of the decade, we might be seeing a completely new type of space race: the United States, China and two tycoons. Who will win?
And, in fact, who is who? Columbus sailed to America (as it turned out) under the Spanish flag. Armstrong flew to the moon under the Stars and Stripes. If the first flags to be planted in the soil of Mars are those of Tesla or Amazon, will it mean that “the Americans” got there first?
From the public-opinion perspective, the boisterous competition between Musk and Bezos is no less interesting than the contest between the world's great powers. Will the landing by one corporation constitute a business and personal victory over the other corporation, or will it be a national triumph reflecting the economic and technological might of their country of origin? And what if Chinese taikonauts in a government-sponsored spacecraft land after them? Will China then be the victor in the international arena?
Reasons for concern
With heavy-lift space vehicles comes heavy responsibility, such as the need to prevent disruptive light pollution (caused both by reflective glare from the craft and by their passing in front of celestial objects) and reducing the man-made space debris that is accumulating in Earth’s atmosphere. In the meantime, Elon Musk is not giving the impression that he’s an especially responsible fellow. In fact, he’s now in the process of launching 13,000 Starlink satellites that will for the first time provide the planet, as well as future Mars settlers, with comprehensive internet service from space, thus doubling the number of active satellites of all companies and countries. This SpaceX project is already creating light pollution that conceals the stars from astronomers, and last year one of Musk’s satellites almost collided with a research satellite of the European Space Agency. Can we trust him to disinfect his spaceship of earthly bacteria before the Mars launch in order to prevent interplanetary biological pollution?
Of course, heavy-lift launchers also accord many rights. Whoever controls the means to launch people into space decides who will fly. Until now, that decision was in American and Russian hands. For example, it was the United States that invited the late Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon to join a space mission, within the framework of its special relationship with Israel. The United States has never invited an Iranian or a Chinese astronaut.
For his part, Bezos, whose vast fortune apparently spares him the need to be a media star like Musk, dreams of settling billions of people on space stations orbiting Earth. Whom will he invite? And who will he not invite? Corporations, like states, have enemies. The Chinese retail giant Alibaba is an Amazon competitor. Will Bezos agree to have Alibaba deliver packages to his colony? Or perhaps Musk will invite Alibaba founder Jack Ma to be the first tourist to do a Venus flyover, simply to rile Bezos, his space nemesis?
One thing is certain: There’s money to be made in space. Lots of money. NASA’s current administrator, James Bridenstine, estimates that the space economy is already generating revenues of $383 billion a year. If space were a country, its GNP would be higher than Israel’s. But with all due respect to satellites, the true potential of space lies in tourism and in mining minerals from asteroids or the moon. Those markets were off-limits all these years because of the staggering initial capital investment needed to reach them. Now, with the aid of government subsidies, businesspeople have developed the infrastructure to expand into both near and deep space. And to judge by the way they conduct business on Earth, they will go about it mercilessly.
In 2018, Amazon earned $11 billion and didn’t pay even one dollar in income tax. About 10 percent of the warehouse staff employed in the U.S. by Bezos – the world’s richest man – need government assistance to buy food, a higher percentage even than the hamburger flippers in McDonald’s. Some of them have to urinate into plastic bottles, for fear of the consequences if they waste time on toilet breaks. This rapaciousness is unlikely to stop in the far reaches of the universe. And it’s Bezos who is selling Amazon shares for billions every year just to enter the game. Musk has also gotten down to serious work and has already established himself as a global monopoly in the realm of commercial space launches, garnering 65 percent of all international contracts. In the first quarter of 2020, even before the successful flight of Dragon, he launched more kilograms into space than China, Russia and Europe combined.
There is no doubt that the engineers of SpaceX and Blue Origin have astonishing technological achievements to their credit. And there is also no doubt that we all want to see a Mars landing in our time. But we have to remember that we are in the meantime privatizing humanity’s interstellar future and placing it in the hands of people who can barely be restrained on Earth.