Space industry faces choice for next direction

by Joel Achenbach

The Washington Post

The air is so clear the mountains in the distance look almost fake, as if added digitally. The desert floor is runway-flat, with a few Joshua trees popping up randomly, like lost cowboys. The dominant feature is the sky, preposterously vast, beckoning test pilots, rocketeers and would-be space travelers.

Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier near Mojave in 1947. Neil Armstrong flew rocket planes. Tom Wolfe immortalized the Antelope Valley’s hard-drinking, sky-shattering aviation pioneers in his book “The Right Stuff.” The place is chockablock with history — and yet it’s the future that everyone’s buzzing about.

To hear the dreamers tell it, this is the next Silicon Valley. The Mojave Air and Space Port is the spiritual heart of the industry that people call “New Space.”

Old Space (and this is still the dreamers talking) is slow, bureaucratic, government-directed, completely top-down. Old Space is NASA, cautious and halting, supervising every project down to the last thousand-dollar widget. Old Space is Boeing, Lockheed, Northrop Grumman. Old Space coasts on the glory of the Apollo era and isn’t entirely sure what to do next.

New Space is the opposite of all that. It’s wild. It’s commercial, bootstrapping, imaginative, right up to the point of being (and this is no longer the dreamers talking) delusional.

Many of the New Space enterprises are still in the PowerPoint stage, with business models built around spaceships that haven’t yet gone to space. A bold attitude and good marketing aren’t enough to put a vehicle into orbit. The skeptics among the Old Space people will say to the upstarts: Where’s your rocket? How many times have you launched? Can you deliver reliably? Repeatedly? Safely? We put a man on the moon — what have you done?

If there’s one thing that New Space has going for it, it’s that Old Space is in trouble. Old Space and New Space turn out to be symbiotic. New Space companies need NASA contracts, and NASA needs New Space companies to pick up the agency’s slack.

The true believers imagine that, someday soon, robotic vehicles will mine asteroids for precious metals, including gold and platinum. Moon dirt will be transformed into rocket fuel for missions to Mars. Closer to home, FedEx will send a package from New York to Tokyo, via space, in half an hour.

Space tourism will be common, the believers insist. Maybe you will fly above the Arctic and see the aurora borealis from space. Tourism will eventually go lunar. “Tourists Walk on Moon” will blow up on Twitter one morning.

You can already buy a ticket on a spaceship. Mojave-based Virgin Galactic says that it will begin carrying passengers into space (the price recently jumped to $250,000 a seat) on suborbital flights in just a matter of months, with its flamboyant founder, Richard Branson, and members of his family along for the ride. The company’s vehicle, SpaceShipTwo, is kept out of sight in a hangar.

Next door, a company called XCOR Aerospace is assembling what it says will be a suborbital space vehicle, the Lynx.

“My life goal is to go to space,” said Jeremy Voigt, 26, an engineer. “I’m going to take care of that here at XCOR. Everybody in the company gets to fly.”

Earthlings vs. gravity is an enduring David vs. Goliath story. Human beings on the surface of Earth are at the bottom of a gravity well. To get anything out of that well and into even a Low Earth Orbit still costs upward of $5,000 per pound. It’s hard to come up with a reasonable business plan as long as launch costs are that high, which is why the government still dominates the space industry.

Another problem is that spaceflight has to work. The margin of error, between success and catastrophe, is minuscule. It’s not like the computer business, where you can deliver a product and work out the bugs later. As Jeff Greason, the chief executive of XCOR, puts it, “We’re not an industry that can ship the beta.”

This is why Elon Musk, the chief executive of SpaceX, said in a recent telephone interview that he’s “sweating” the launch, scheduled for Monday, of his Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral, Fla. It’s supposed to put a communications satellite into a high Earth orbit, but a lot of things have to go perfectly.

“The thing with the rocket is, the passing grade is 100 percent. You can’t issue a recall or do a patch,” Musk said. “You either get it all right or you’re screwed.”

Cold War competition

The glory days of Apollo were the direct result of an astonishing, but temporary, infusion of national resources driven by the Cold War and the desire to beat the Soviets to the moon. In the mid-1960s, NASA consumed nearly 5 percent of the federal budget. The agency commands just a tenth of that today. That’s about $17 billion, with the largest chunk still going to human space flight, including the international space station.

With the shuttle now retired, NASA is moving to a new set of hardware, including a jumbo rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), and a capsule, Orion. Both projects are still in process. Orion won’t fly until next year at the earliest. The SLS won’t fly until 2017. The first flight of both with a crew aboard won’t be until 2021.

Where these things will go and what exactly they’ll do remains unclear.

Both the rocket and capsule are overbuilt for routine missions to the space station. The new rocket could launch Orion to the moon, but without a lunar lander, the capsule could only go into lunar orbit and then come home. NASA recently announced a controversial plan, fraught with technical uncertainties, to send astronauts in 2021 to rendezvous with an asteroid that would be redirected to lunar orbit.

Haphazard though some of this seems, there’s a deeper strategy at work. NASA retired the space shuttle so that it could devote resources to bold, deep-space missions — true exploration. There was always going to be an awkward transitional era.

Right now, American astronauts can get to the international space station only by traveling to a spaceport in Kazakhstan and catching a ride on a Russian rocket. That costs about $71 million per ticket. The U.S. Treasury is sending more than $400 million a year to Russia for launch services.

NASA hopes New Space will come to the rescue.

A huge strategic shift came when President Barack Obama canceled the Bush-approved Constellation program, which would have sent American astronauts back to the moon. That decision killed a new NASA rocket, the Ares I, and roiled the Old Space community. The administration extended the life of the space station and decided to count on commercial companies to put astronauts in orbit.

In the space business, “commercial” is a debatable term. For the better part of a decade, NASA has been boosting the entrepreneurial space sector through a series of agreements that have funneled $1.8 billion to companies developing private spacecraft and other hardware. The government still writes a lot of the checks in the commercial industry. The biggest change is in the nature of the contracts.

Traditional “cost-plus” contracts limited the incentives to keep costs down. The government owned the spaceships and rockets. With the new, commercial contracts, the private companies assume more risk and put more of their own money into the projects. They design and build their spaceships and rockets, with NASA hovering in the background as a customer, not as a supervisor.

SpaceX and the Dulles, Va.-based launch company Orbital Sciences have already succeeded in hauling cargo in unpiloted vehicles to the space station under one NASA program. Next comes a competition for the contract to launch astronauts. Three companies appear to be in the running: SpaceX, Sierra Nevada and Boeing. That’s two New Space companies plus an Old Space stalwart.

SpaceX and Boeing have developed capsules that will launch on top of rockets. Sierra Nevada has a winged vehicle, a kind of miniature space shuttle, called the Dream Chaser.

In a recent test flight near Mojave, the unmanned Dream Chaser was dropped from a helicopter at 12,500 feet (3,800 meters), and, flying autonomously by its on-board navigation system, glided back to Earth admirably — falling with style, one might say. It touched down on the center line of the runway.

Unfortunately, the landing gear hadn’t deployed properly. The Dream Chaser flopped on its side and skidded off the runway, into the desert.

It was the latest reminder that this spaceship stuff is never easy.

Men on Mars

Any discussion of New Space has to orbit around SpaceX. Musk is an all-purpose inventor of the future. After making a fortune as an Internet entrepreneur with PayPal, he started SpaceX and began telling people about his dream of going to Mars.

He seemed a bit out-there — a visionary who talked a good game but didn’t actually have a rocket that could fly. The first launch of the Falcon 1 rocket was a failure. So was the second. So was the third.

And then the technology started to work. The Falcon 9 — “Falcon” from the Millennium Falcon spaceship in “Star Wars” and “9″ from the number of engines on the first stage — managed to send the unmanned Dragon spacecraft to the space station three times, carrying supplies and experiments. SpaceX is in the process of fulfilling a $1.6 billion cargo-hauling contract with NASA that will entail a dozen flights over several years.

SpaceX may have its own astronauts in the near future. Chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell said that the first crewed test flight of the Dragon, which is still several years away, might involve not only NASA astronauts but also one SpaceX “technician” riding along as a troubleshooter.

Long-term, Musk would like to colonize Mars.

“We’re either going to be on Earth forever until some extinction event claims us, or we’re going to be a multiplanet species, out there exploring the stars,” Musk said in the interview. “The evidence is pretty clear that breakthrough space flight technologies are not going to come from Boeing and Lockheed.”

In a hallway at the SpaceX factory in Hawthorne, Calif., there are two images of Mars. The one on the left is an actual photograph of the Red Planet. In the photograph on the right, Mars is green. This is Mars as it would be if the dreamers could make it Earth-like.

In the meantime, Musk is running SpaceX part-time. He’s the founder and chief executive of Tesla, the electric-car company. In a typical work week, he commutes between Tesla, in Northern California, and SpaceX, in Southern California — and somehow manages to squeeze in being the father of five boys.

Musk’s car company has been in the news recently because of three car fires, and Tesla’s soaring stock price has started to return to Earth. Although he’s rich and glamorous and the subject of cover stories in glossy magazines, he does not sound as if being an inventor of the future is much fun right now.

“I’m under a huge amount of strain,” Musk said. “There’s no two ways about it. I’m trying to do a whole lot of things simultaneously. It’s tough when things are going smoothly, and it’s really tough when things are not.”

Jostling for space

As part of its expansionary strategy, SpaceX wants a storied slice of Old Space architecture. The company has put in a bid for a five-year lease at Launch Complex 39A, formerly a space shuttle launch pad, at the NASA Kennedy Space Center. But other players have been eyeing the same launch pad, including Blue Origin, a New Space company owned by Amazon.com founder Jeffrey Bezos. (Bezos’ private investment company, Nash Holdings, bought The Washington Post on Oct. 1.)

Blue Origin wants the pad to be a multiuser complex. United Launch Alliance (ULA), a 50-50 joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed, has echoed that sentiment. Musk, rankled, said he sees no chance that Blue Origin will have an orbital vehicle anytime soon. In a September email to SpaceNews, Musk wrote that if Blue Origin does come up with a vehicle that could launch from Pad 39A and safely reach the space station, “we will gladly accommodate their needs. Frankly, I think we are more likely to discover unicorns dancing in the flame duct.”

Rob Meyerson, president of Blue Origin, emailed SpaceNews in response: “We have committed significant funds to enable launches by other users beginning as early as 2015 and have garnered interest and support from nearly all U.S. commercial launch providers. We look forward to working with NASA and the launch community to make fullest commercial use of LC 39A.”

Blue Origin and Bezos declined to grant an interview for this story.

At a recent New Space conference in New Mexico, a Blue Origin executive, Bretton Alexander, showed video clips of a few hardware tests. Blue Origin is interested in both sub-orbital and orbital flight, including human spaceflight.

“What’s king is low cost, reusability and safety,” Alexander said. The company’s overall goal, he said, is “more people flying in space to do more things.”

A smattering of Old Space folks from Boeing and ULA showed up at the conference, held at a farm and ranch museum in Las Cruces. Andrew Aldrin, a ULA executive whose father, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, walked on the moon, participated in a panel discussion in which he suggested, in effect, that NASA is rolling the dice if it doesn’t stick with the Old Space companies, who charge more for their services but have a longer track record.

“If we have a failure early on in this program, it’s going to be very difficult. We’ll be down for a long time. You can’t overstate mission safety,” Aldrin said. “You can’t really calculate the value of losing astronauts.”

He spoke as a representative of a company, ULA, that has enjoyed a near-monopoly on U.S. military and national security launches. SpaceX wants a piece of that multibillion-dollar action.

“We’re going to take a tremendous amount of market share away from them,” vows Shotwell of SpaceX.

Maybe.

“It’s important that the next few launches go well,” Musk said.

Way out there

The New Space sector ranges from the highly pragmatic to the utterly fantastic. In the pragmatic category would be NanoRacks, a company that is selling simple, plug-and-play hardware that can be used by scientists or students to conduct experiments on the space station.

But then there’s Mars One, an organization based in the Netherlands that claims that it will put teams of astronauts on Mars beginning in 2023. Mars One is not a space company so much as it’s a reality TV show. People will compete, in four-person teams, for the prize of a journey to Mars. More than 200,000 people from around the world have applied, according to the Mars One website.

Mars is also the target of billionaire Dennis Tito, a former engineer who made his money as an investment manager and in 2001 paid his way to space on a Russian rocket, becoming the first space tourist. Tito now wants to send two volunteer astronauts on a 501-day fly-by mission of Mars. The spacecraft wouldn’t land, but it would pass about 100 miles (160 km) from the Martian surface.

“Inspiration Mars,” as Tito named the mission, would have to launch in late 2017 or early 2018 to take advantage of a brief, and rare, alignment of Mars and Earth that would minimize the travel time and fuel requirements.

Originally, Tito wanted to do the whole thing with private money and private rockets. On Wednesday, he testified in Congress that Inspiration Mars really needs NASA help. Specifically, the mission requires that big NASA rocket under development, the SLS. Also, NASA would have to kick in about $700 million, in addition to what the agency is already spending on rocket development.

Later on Wednesday, the agency provided an official reaction. NASA spokesman David Weaver, citing the many technical challenges of the mission, said the agency “is willing to share technical and programmatic expertise with Inspiration Mars but is unable to commit to sharing expenses with them.”

That would be a no-go.

The New Space people

New Space is a sub-culture, which is why the community can boast that it has its own anthropologist, a University of Minnesota professor, David Valentine, who has spent five years studying these people as part of a book project.

Traditionally, academics have had a dim view of the space program, Valentine said. There is much talk in academia about the “psychic injury” to “white American masculinity” from the failure of the space program to deliver on the grandiose visions of the Apollo era.

But he’s become less skeptical of the New Space people.

“Because a dream is culturally implanted, because a dream comes out of your experiences and hopes in childhood and infancy, doesn’t mean that it isn’t real,” Valentine said.

One person who has turned his childhood fascination with space into a growing business is Robert Bigelow. He made his fortune with Budget Suites of America, a hotel chain. His Las Vegas-based company, Bigelow Aerospace, makes inflatable space habitats — orbital motels, in effect.

NASA plans to attach a Bigelow inflatable to the space station, and it may someday put a Bigelow inflatable habitat at a point beyond the moon. Astronauts could visit. A Bigelow habitat would be more comfortable than one of NASA’s Orion capsules.

Bigelow’s current focus is the moon and property rights. Under a 1967 international agreement, the moon can’t be claimed by any country, nor can a person own a piece of it. But Bigelow wants the government to issue a ruling that would give entrepreneurs property rights to protect their investments as they develop lunar resources.

“Property rights provide order and reduce tribal warfare,” Bigelow said at a news conference this month at a Capitol Hill hotel.

When a CNBC reporter asked if anyone should be allowed to own parts of the moon, Bigelow answered, “No. No one anything should own the moon. But yes, multiple entities, groups, individuals, yes, they should own” the moon.

If we don’t seize the initiative, he said, China will. And then everyone on Earth will look up at the moon, he said, and know that “it belongs to China.”

Orbiting around Mojave

New Space is efflorescing in multiple locations, including west Texas; southern New Mexico; Huntsville, Ala.; and near the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. But there’s nowhere in America quite like Mojave.

This is where the legendary engineer Burt Rutan and his company Scaled Composites built SpaceShipOne, which in 2004 won the Ansari X Prize as the first private manned vehicle to reach space.

There are 17 space-related companies in Mojave and up to 3,000 employees on any given day. Could one of these companies be the next Google or Facebook? As with the computer industry, there are many players and many clever ideas (or otherwise — a classic industry line is, “I don’t care about your stupid idea; I’ve got a stupid idea of my own.”). Unlike the computer industry, the customer base is small for now, and the products are pricey.

Life in the New Space universe isn’t a breeze. Projects get delayed. Spaceships remain in their hangars, not ready for space. Wall Street investors may drop in to visit, but the big institutional money isn’t ready to gamble on New Space.

“They still face very, very long odds. The vast majority of these ventures will fail. That’s just the way new ventures are,” said Scott Pace, director of the George Washington University Space Policy Institute. The only space businesses that turn a profit are information-based and don’t involve people blasting off the surface, he said. “Given the cost of launch, the things that make money are things that don’t weigh anything — photons, communications, GPS, remote sensing.”

There are cautionary tales in every direction. Consider the Roton, the invention of a Mojave company called Rotary Rocket that in the 1990s tried to create a single-stage, reusable orbital rocket, something no one had done before.

“There were a lot of dreamers in previous years,” said Doug Jones, a former Rotary Rocket engineer who is now with XCOR. “They tried to bite off too big a task.”

The Roton was strangely conical and looks like something from a cartoon. Before the company went bust, the Roton had a few short, slightly wobbly test flights in which it never got very far off the ground. The shell of the rocket is now a landmark at the spaceport, rising from a small park in the center of the complex.

People will say “Go right at the rocket,” or “Go left at the rocket.”

It was a daring idea in its day, pushing the edge of the envelope, but now it’s the world’s largest traffic cone.