Beyond NASA: Dawn of the Next Space Age
Burning with DIY ambitions, entrepreneurs are launching rockets, planning microgravity experiments, designing space hotels--and elbowing government out of their way.
“The reason I called you here is, we’re not winning, folks,”Rick Tumlinson said. Founder of the scrappy Space Frontier Foundation, a group that’s dedicated to getting humans off planet Earth, Tumlinson had arranged this emergency meeting of members of the “alternative space agenda” just weeks after the disintegration of space shuttle Columbia.
Scanning the crowd gathered at the Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles, he fixed his eyes on the contingent from the Mars Society. “How’s your Mars initiative going?” he asked, lacing every word with provocation. “How’s that workin’ for ya?” He looked over at a guy trying to raise money for a private space firm. “The bucks are just pouring through the door, aren’t they?” He shot a glance at the folks managing the X Prize, a $10 million award promised to the first private group that builds a reusable spacecraft. “That was real easy to fund, now, wasn’t it?”
When Columbia scattered its scorched entrails across Texas, it was a tragedy, to be sure, but also a potential turning point. NASA’s manned space program lay in chaos. The plan this weekend was to seize the moment and draft some policy points that could be plunked down on a table in Washington, that might spark a mind-shift to a more exciting vision–hell, any vision–for the exploration and eventual settlement of space.
The banquet-room crowd was the sort you might call ragtag if it didn’t include people who could buy your family a hundred times over and sell them for parts. There were rocket-company CEOs and private investors worth millions, as well as astronauts public and private–Buzz Aldrin, Rick Searfoss, Dennis Tito. There were gadflies, dreamers and would-be space tourists, including a couple who planned to consummate in space and had already been to Russia for medical exams.
No one from NASA or the aerospace giants–Boeing, Lockheed Martin and the like–had been invited. Their perspective was already known, and besides, NASA administrators were busy with their own soul-searching. The panel investigating the Columbia disaster would soon come down on NASA, railing at its arrogance, insularity and “broken safety culture,” in which engineers’ concerns were trumped by launch schedules. Running overbuilt, overpriced, Nixon-era shuttles up to the half-finished International Space Station every few months was starting to seem a charade–like a kid who keeps leaving for school every day so his parents won’t figure out he’s been suspended–but that’s the position NASA now found itself in.
Ten months after Tumlinson’s meeting, NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers would land on Mars, eliciting a triumphant “We’re back!” from NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe, and President Bush would outline an ambitious plan to return to the Moon, potentially as an interim step to Mars. But while those developments would generally be welcomed by the alternative space crowd, questions lingered. Was this just political grandstanding? Where were the technical details? The funding?
The people at Tumlinson’s meeting yearned for the era when NASA set lofty goals such as the Apollo missions and beat the deadline to achieve them, when PanAm was taking bookings for space-liner trips to the Moon. To the people in this room, NASA had come to stand for No Americans in Space at All. It was time for a change. And regardless of what kind of rhetoric happened to be emanating from Washington, the solution, all agreed, was to take matters into their own hands.
Discontent has long crackled on the fringes of NASA. Some enthusiasts view the predicament of terrestrial life as a little like what the writer Nick Hornby has said Bruce Springsteen’s songs are all about: You can stay and rot, or you can escape and burn. What you can’t do is stand still. Self-destruction–by bioterrorism, nuclear holocaust, ozone depletion–looms, many believe, as an alternative to the natural event–asteroid collision, ice age–that will eventually do us in. (In his latest book, British cosmologist Martin Rees, a Cassandra with unsettlingly sterling credentials, puts our chances of making it through another century at fifty-fifty.) Bet-hedgers call for “species redundancy”: creating human outposts in space so that we will survive even if Earth doesn’t. “What does it cost to have an insurance policy?” asks Elon Musk, head of the orbital launch company SpaceX. “If it’s 1 percent of our annual economy, isn’t that money well spent?”
The idea that bootstrappers can open up space by themselves has always been met by skepticism. After all, not a single proven private space company has yet to emerge. And hype about private-sector space projects rings hollow to the investors who lost their shirts on quixotic ventures like MirCorp’s plan for a private three-guest space hotel, or Rotary Rocket, the single-stage-to-orbit helicopter. (“You know the secret of making a small fortune in space?” Rotary CEO Gary Hudson reportedly quipped to a couple of guys from NASA as his operating budget quickly vanished: “Start with a large one.”) Or to anyone who has seriously considered the logistics of even a state-funded mission to Mars.
But there does seem to be something different about this particular historical moment. In the upheaval created by NASA’s recent troubles lies an unprecedented opportunity for private outfits to start driving the national space agenda–and at a time when the will is strong, the technology is available, and what Barron’s calls “the most pro-business, anti-regulation administration since Reagan’s” sits in the White House.
And that’s exactly what’s starting to happen. While standard vaporware continues to issue from bar stools, real hardware is coming out of hangars from California to Ontario. If the ’90s will be remembered as the decade of doomed experiments (Bill Gross’s private lunar lander mission, Blastoff.com; Andrew Beal’s heavy-lift booster rocket), the aughts will go down as the era in which the first private space missions got off the ground.
Consider recent events. The Planetary Society, the world’s largest space interest group, test-launched a prototype of the world’s first solar sail, a spacecraft that–propelled by light from the Sun, rather than an engine–should continually accelerate, eventually reaching the stars. A company called LunaCorp has convinced Walt Anderson, a telecom magnate, to back the world’s first commercial lunar mission–an interactive experience in which ordinary people would be able to remotely control a robot on the Moon’s surface. SpaceX has lined up three customers for its satellite-launch business, and at press time intended to send up its first payload, a U.S. Defense Department satellite, in May. Space Adventures–the first successful space tourism broker–has inked a deal with the Russian space agency Rosaviacosmos to send the world’s third and fourth space tourists (after Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth) to the International Space Station aboard a Soyuz rocket next year. And a half dozen other would-be space travelers are in various stages of qualification and training for orbital flights, says Space Adventures CEO Eric Anderson.
NASA, for its part, if not yet ready to bail out of low Earth orbit (LEO), seems prepared to cede some of its activities there to the private sector. In an astonishing development, the space agency has signed on as a passenger with Team Encounter–a Houston-based company best known for its offer to send your DNA into space for $49.95 if you give them a hair sample. When Team Encounter launches a craft in 2005, onboard for testing will be NASA’s Inertial Stellar Compass, a low-power navigational system for long-range spacecraft.
And that’s just the American side. In Russia, Cold War ICBMs are being converted into commercial satellite rides, seeding a new generation of private space ventures. Britain, Japan and, most notably, China now have active space programs–and India and even Brazil are under way. Clearly, space exploration is no longer the exclusive domain of two governments and the very large aerospace companies that have served them–or of governments at all. If we leave it to NASA, says John Carmack of Armadillo Aerospace, “cheap access to space is just not going to happen, and it’s not because of incompetence or malice or conspiracy. It’s just because of the way the industry has evolved.”
Rick Tumlinson concurs. “Many in the space movement thought there was some sort of spiritual consensus, that government understood that the goal was to get us to Star Trek or Babylon 5, humans living in space,” he says. “That was an assumption we had made because we all hang out with each other. Maybe we bought our own propaganda.”
The pervasive feeling–for everyone except perhaps 86-year-old sci-fi sage Arthur C. Clarke, whose long-nurtured dream of going into space seems just about shot–is that it’s not too late to rekindle the old hopes. The question is no longer, Is there going to be a post-NASA space industry, but, How is it going to happen? Who is going to lead it?
And out of the Sun come the alternative space cowboys, newly focused and riding into Dodge on cue.
Who are these guys? A group big and diverse enough that it’s impossible to answer the question in a stroke. They comprise a whole world, like the denizens of Middle Earth. There are the mythic principals, including a legendary aircraft builder (Burt Rutan) and a genius videogame designer who once spent a year in juvie (Carmack). There are the muses, contemporary sci-fi writers playing the role that Wells and Verne did for Goddard and von Braun (and drawing “consultant” salaries, to boot). There are the provocateurs, guys playing around the edges of the edges, working in the yard on things barely allowed by physics. There are the nonprofit groups, functioning (as Tumlinson puts it) as “air cover for the infantry charge.” And there are the funders, who shovel capital to the visionaries like patrons to Italian painters during the Renaissance.
Indeed, a scan of some of the financing match-ups puts you in mind of a sign in the crowd during last year’s Mavs/Blazers playoff series: “Our billionaire can beat your billionaire.” This is where the dot-com cash-outs and telecom magnates have landed–because, hey, after you’ve had the world’s most lucrative job, it’s natural to want the world’s coolest job. Many of the most high-profile space entrepreneurs, like PayPal founder Musk (SpaceX) and Amazon.com chief Jeff Bezos (spacecraft developer Blue Origin) and hotelier Robert Bigelow (space hotel developer Bigelow Aerospace) have a deep personal interest in the day-to-day operations of their companies. Many are astonishingly young men (and they are, let’s face it, mostly men) who were still in their teens when the Challenger exploded, who have no live memories of Armstrong’s Moon walk. (“A lot of us,” says Space Adventures’ Anderson, who is 29, “felt like we missed out.”)
Their visions range in scope from grand–Buzz Aldrin’s wide-body orbital space-liner–to grander–extracting platinum from asteroids or the Moon to serve as a catalyst in terrestrial fuel cells–to grander still–Mars Society chief Robert Zubrin’s plan to send astronauts to Mars without the fuel to get back, because a robotic craft, sent earlier, would have produced the fuel in situ. Their motives comprise both the high-minded (the Planetary Society’s efforts, through its SETI program, to send interstellar messages conveying human altruism) and the chiefly mercantile, like Team Encounter’s DNA-launch scheme. They are steel-tacks business guys who project that once the highway gets humming up there in low Earth orbit, it’s going to need mechanics, and it’s going to need hoteliers, and it’s going to need gas-station attendants. They are the engineers chasing the X Prize by building suborbital rocket ships that look like Frisbees or cigars, that will launch from beneath the surface of the ocean or from the world’s largest helium balloon, that will come down under parachutes or land on conventional runways. They are doing this work to save the species, or to get rich, or to force regulators to define their terms, or just because it’s a kick (or some combination thereof). They are the kind of people you want to sit next to at a dinner party: folks like Brian “Rocket Guy” Walker, who is building a personal, hydrogen-peroxide-powered rocket that looks like a 37-foot-tall lawn dart, funded mostly by sales of kids’ toys he has invented. Or William Stone, a robotics engineer who is working on a way to return from space cheaply with equipment that weighs only a few hundred pounds.
They are a fiercely independent lot, but also oddly codependent. Many have devoted themselves to inventions that are contingent upon other people’s inventions working. Stone’s contraption may get you down from space–but someone else will have to get you up there. Robert Bigelow’s inflatable hotel will only be viable if others make a go of space-plane tourism. Orbital assembly and repair services for satellites–like Walt Anderson’s Orbital Recovery or Dennis Wingo’s SkyCorp–will thrive only if the satellite industry continues to do so.
No matter what brand of space travel they advocate, most share a source of inspiration. “These people grew up in a culture that said, â€We are moving out into space,'” Tumlinson says. “And science fiction gave them images and ideas. Put those two together and you end up with a fairly unique set of people who believe it can be done, have seen something major done in their lifetime, and think that maybe they can do it themselves.”
The contest promises to be an exhilarating spectator sport, if only we can figure out the rules–which starts with sorting out the players. There are a number of possible ways to approach the job.
By credibility. The players are “real” or “not real,” “the ones who get the hot planes” vs. “the pud-knockers who dream of getting the hot planes,” in the words of the bartender at Pancho’s Happy Bottom Riding Club in The Right Stuff. The real players, as Keith Cowing of the Web-based NASA Watch puts it, “are the people who actually do stuff,” as opposed to “the space weenies” with “paper rockets” who walk around saying, “If you gave me this, I could do that” and are, demonstrably, “full of shit.”
By destination. They are Lunatics or Martians. They believe, in other words, in the Moon or Mars, respectively, as the next logical goal. The Moon because you can work out space problems there with a more or less real-time link to Earth, and there are resources there worth investigating, and observatories to be built. (And because, as Tumlinson puts it, “beyond the Moon you get laughed out of the boardroom.”) Or Mars direct because it’s the elephant in the living room–the only place we really want to go. (A third possibility: They are fence-sitters, gunning for a gravitationally neutral Lagrange point, there to set up an orbiting platform to launch flights to . . . wherever.)
By how well they play with others. They are with the
government or against it. We can develop “frontier-enabling technology” without NASA’s help. Or we can’t, and should collaborate with the space agency: The government provides the interstate highway system, for example, and we provide the cars.
But there’s another, more satisfying way to peer into these folks’ souls and sort them out: By their reasons for wanting to go. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s sci-fi novel Red Mars, the first Martian colonists–a diverse group of scientists known as the First Hundred–investigate their new domain. A debate quickly ensues.
“We really ought to make a run up to the pole,” says one.
“There’s no geological reason,” another replies.
“You just want to go. . . . We’re up here to get water. We’re not up here to fool around.”
“It’s not fooling around. We obtain water to allow us to explore, we don’t explore to obtain water! You’ve got it backwards!”
The exchange illuminates the chief competing impulses that propel all space-farers: exploration for its own sake versus exploration for a specific purpose, be it acquisitive or creative. It’s a difference in perspective: We are investigating how we fit into the universe, or we are trying to immortalize our own species. And here is perhaps the best typology of all. In a paradigm Tumlinson dreamed up, the space world fractures into three groups: Saganites, O’Neillians and von Braunians.
Saganites, named for astronomer Carl Sagan (1934â€1996), are the philosophers and voyeurs of the cosmos, intent on low-impact exploration that promotes a sense of wonder. They consider the universe an extension of Earth, and want space explorers to be politically correct pacifists and environmentalists.
O’Neillians take their name from Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill (1927â€1992), who imagined city-size colonies in space contained on vast, rotating platforms (think of the space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey, with its spinning rings and artificial gravity). Getting people out of here en masse was the thing–not to kiss Earth good-bye in the rearview mirror, but to give it a chance, by consuming extraterrestrial rather than terrestrial resources. (An O’Neillian motto, riding a bumper sticker of his day, read: “Save Earth: Develop Space.”)
Von Braunians are, strictly speaking, the old guard, named for the V-2 and Saturn rocket-meister Wernher von Braun (1912â€1977). Von Braunians advocate a centralized approach: large expensive projects like the ones NASA undertakes, projects that ordinary people can be proud of but not participate in.
In a nutshell: Saganites say, Look but don’t touch; O’Neillians, Do it yourself; von Braunians, We’ll do it for you. Saganites are about indulging our sense of awe. They believe all space races we can imagine now are just tune-ups for the real event–which will happen when we discover, through SETI, or planet-hunting interferometry probes, evidence of probable intelligent life. Saganites would like to see humanity develop international space treaties, to view space as a common resource. O’Neillians are about free enterprise, manifest destiny and everyone’s right to a piece of the private-entry-to-LEO pie. They believe space is fair game for development. Von Braunians are about national prestige–NASA’s very reason for being, and surely the biggest single driver of space-faring to date. When Kennedy announced Americans would be first to the Moon, when Nixon signed off on the space shuttle program, when Reagan OK’d the space station–they were all serving up old Wernher, wrapped in Old Glory.
Struggling astropreneurs are stuck in a catch-22: To get R&D funding, they must prove there’s a customer base for space tourism. To build a customer base–to create technology to get ordinary folks to LEO relatively cheaply ($10,000 a ride, not the $12 million it costs today)–they need cash. No bucks, no Buck Rogers.
The “giggle factor” kicks in well before you start talking about private figure-eight rocket trips around the Moon. Testifying before a Congressional committee, Dennis Tito, Earth’s first space tourist and a canny investor, was asked if he would put money into this industry. He said no. He wanted to go up because, well, he wanted to go up. But he wouldn’t invest his own cash because, in his judgment, the market wasn’t there. With no venture capital materializing to help finance Lockheed Martin’s X-33 reusable-launch-vehicle
prototype, which would later be killed by NASA, then-CEO Peter Teets conceded to Congress in 1999: “Wall Street has spoken.”
Still, the alternative space race has one great thing going for it. Beneath debates about economics and species preservation, scientific curiosity and national pride lies an argument that hardly anyone, irrespective of politics, can reject outright, because it twinkles beyond words or reason. It has to do with human destiny. “This cause of exploration and discovery is
not an option we choose,” George W. Bush intoned at the memorial service for Columbia’s crew. “It is a desire written in the human heart.”
At times, the meeting of the alternative space crowd in that L.A. banquet room seemed about to dissolve into anarchy. Shuttle astronaut Rick Searfoss projected an image on a screen of a cat, illustrating the soul of the problem: Getting members of the citizens’ space agenda to agree on anything is like herding this animal. But one thing everyone did agree on is that things must change. Perhaps the change will come after the first private venture turns a profit–and suddenly what seemed to be a nest of contradictory ideas will actually fit together. “When things do get going great guns, and low-cost, reliable access to space is here, then all these things we’re focusing on now will become transparent,” Peter Diamandis, father of the X Prize competition, told the crowd.
“There’s a story Vint Cerf tells,” Diamandis says, referring to an architect of the Internet. “He’d spent a decade pushing the rock up the hill. Then, once the Internet took off, he spent the next year running as fast as he could so as not to be crushed by it. That’s where we are now in space. Everybody’s pushing the rock up the hill. But once it starts, it’s going to be unstoppable. There aren’t going to be dozens, but hundreds of business plans. It’ll be like setting off an exothermic reaction.”