“3-2-1… Release, release, release!!!” 🚀
Why it’s now the time to finally get excited about space again.
“LIGHT THIS CANDLE!”
How must it felt like to experience the first launch of a rocket going toward space? On May 5th, 1961, the first rocket was scheduled to go to space from the famous NASA shuttle launch site at Cape Canaveral, FL. It was the pinnacle of the US effort to bring the first American astronaut into space after the Russians have successfully sent Yuri Gagarin into space two weeks prior for the first time in history.
After numerous delays on that day, Alan Shepard started to feel impatient waiting on top of the two tons of metal and highly explosive fuel. Finally, Alan radioed forcefully to mission control: “Why don’t you fix your little problem and light this candle?!”
This launch captured the public imagination and cumulated in reaching the moon within a decade as Kennedy proclaimed. After a half-dozen successful moon missions, the US decided in 1972 it had had enough. Public funding for NASA largely dried up quickly. Other nations did not try to reach the moon. That was 48 years ago! And many people who are currently working at NASA have never experienced a moon landing.
Space has never again captured the imagination of millions of people around the world. That is, maybe until now. And this time, it’s private capital rather than taxpayer dollars paying the way.
A NEW SPACE RACE
As the new decade starts, we are in the middle of a very different space race than the Russian-American space race. This race is led by three prominent business tycoons. Billionaires that channel their influence and fortunes toward helping humanity leave its home. Their names are Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson. Their visions are ranging from suborbital space tourism to colonizing Mars.
Their ambitious goals and achievements have inspired a constellation of other companies to use private funding to pursue astronomical aims e.g. launching satellites and mining and harvesting the vast resources of space. Kevin Dowd from PitchBook has noted that:
“Venture capitalists and corporations alike are making more investments in the space sector than ever before, putting their cash behind groundbreaking technologies and entrepreneurs unafraid to quite literally shoot for the moon” (Kevin Dowd, 2019).
WELCOME TO THE NEW AGE — Blue Origin
Our new bold space age began modestly in a coffee shop in Seattle. Where else would you think?
One day in 1999, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his friend Neal Stephenson, a science-fiction author, attended a screening of “October Sky”, which deals with a kid from West Virginia in the 1950s that becomes against all odds a NASA engineer. Over a cup of coffee, Jeff mentioned to Neal that he always wanted to start his own space company. According to Christian Davenport who wrote “The Space Barons”, Neal responded: “Well, why don’t you start it today?”
Blue Origin launched shortly in 2000, with the idea of developing vertical takeoff and vertical landing rockets and other supporting technologies that could guide humanity into space leaving our blue origin behind. Our small blue planet is maybe just the launchpad for humanity’s space colonization.
Currently, Jeff Bezos sells every year $1 billion worth of Amazon shares to fund the ambitious project. Until now, it is not completely disclosed how far they are in their development but their mission is pretty clear: “We will go back to the moon, this time to stay!” (Jeff Bezos).
“BANG!!!” — SpaceX
After selling PayPal to eBay in 2002, Elon Musk wanted to get involved in the space economy. But in the beginning, he had no idea how to start this endeavor. On the SXSW 2013, Elon revealed: “So I went to the NASA website to see when we were going to Mars and I couldn’t find that out” (Elon Musk).
His initial idea was philanthropic bringing the first life to the red planet Mars. He wanted to buy a rocket and sent a greenhouse packed with seeds and nutrient gel toward Mars and hydrate them there. Would you have thought that this mission would cost just $30 million? That’s what he initially plant to spend.
In Russia, he tried to buy a ballistic missile that he wanted to refurbish for the mission. But after multiple visits to Russia, he did not receive an acceptable offer to buy a missile. It was too expensive. Elon decided to pivot. Surely, he could build a more affordable rocket on his own. After a few failed attempts, SpaceX built and launched the first reusable rocket by a privately owned venture cutting the cost of spaceflight dramatically.
Currently, SpaceX is working on many projects simultaneously but its most near-term project is Starlink providing broadband internet service via satellites. Already, this year SpaceX has captured the record for having the most operational satellites in space, with 180 Starlink satellites deployed. All those Starlink satellites are placed in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). It has plans of putting up to 42,000 satellites to “deliver high-speed broadband internet to locations where access has been unreliable, expensive, or completely unavailable”. SpaceX intends to start offering affordable high-speed internet service to the northern US and Canada already later this year. This project could change the fate of billions of people who are still not connected or that face government regulation what services are available in the country. The internet would be accessible and free!
GALACTIC JOURNEY — Virgin Galactic
The third participant into this new billionaire-fueled space race joined in 2004 in the form of Richard Branson. The entrepreneur who built the vast Virgin empire has a more modest plan than Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin) and Elon Musk (SpaceX): He wants to make space accessible to tourists while taking them on a 60-miles-up-journey into outer space.
Virgin Galactic’s spaceflight involves two planes: One ginormous airplane called VMS EVE that takes a rocket VSS UNITY to a certain hight and releases it. This spaceship then performs most of the flight to outer space and uses its folded tail booms to glide back to its original airport as shown in the graphic above or in this video.
While Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have built their rocket companies completely from scratch, Richard Branson acquired the business when it’s already sent a rocket to space. The business was initially backed by Paul Allen who helped the engineer Burt Rutan to develop a spaceship to win the X Prize. It was a $10 million award promised by entrepreneur Peter Diamandis in 1996 to the first private citizen to fly a manned ship across the Karman line (the widely accepted border of space) twice in the span of two weeks. Burt succeeded in 2004 and Richard acquired shortly the intellectual property from Allen and formed Virgin Galactic to continue Rutan’s work. Most people agree that it was the first milestone in privatizing space.
In October 2019, the company went public under the ticker SPCE with the support of a special-purpose acquisition company called Social Capital Hedosophia, handing over a 49% stake at a valuation of $1.5 billion after it successfully reached a long-awaited milestone by flying a regular passenger not astronaut into space for the first time. Now the company focuses on the commercialization of its technology. Virgin Galactic has a backlog of more than 600 future customers that are willing to go to space for $250,000. They have already collected $80 million in deposits. Eventually, they want to lower the cost of the ticket as the technology gets via economy of scale more affordable.
In the long-run, they also want to disrupt point-to-point travel on earth. A regular flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo that lasts around 12 hours could be cut down to a mere 2 hours. The consequences of such an offering are tremendous. It will make our world so much more connected and accessible.
It’s intoxicating stuff — ideas of cosmic travel, new broadband services from space and extraterrestrial colonies are enough to capture anyone’s imagination.
So many mysteries are still lingering in this new era. Can Virgin Galactic make space tourism affordable? Can Blue Origin colonize our solar system? Can SpaceX reach Mars and start colonizing it?
Most space investors seem to be sure that the future in space is on the horizon. The successes of Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic have inspired a float of entrepreneurs and investors to literally shoot for the moon. It’s finally time to get excited about space again: “Light this candle!”