Liftoff

An Interview with Christian Davenport

Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are the two personalities driving a new space race. Christian Davenport, staff writer at the Washington Post, explains what’s driving them as they attempt to ignite a new, off-world Age of Discovery.

Octavian Report: How would you describe the collective state of our national ambitions for space before Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk arrived on the scene?

Christian Davenport: In terms of human space flight we had the Space Shuttle, which had obviously exploded once in 1986 with the Challenger and then right as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are founding their company. Elon's was founded in 2002. Blue Origin was founded in 2000. The Columbia shuttle came apart over Texas and that killed another seven astronauts.

Some people felt like NASA had taken a step back and that it had retreated in its ambitions. After going to the moon in the '60s — and pulling it off within a decade, which was so extraordinary — we were now just taking the shuttle to low Earth orbit and building the International Space Station. In terms of opening up the frontier and pushing out deeper, it's almost nowhere.

At the time, there was a human presence for NASA in space, but then in 2011 it went away completely in terms of NASA's ability to fly astronauts. People forget that today, NASA does not have the ability to fly humans anywhere to space. We pay the Russians to do it for us.

OR: How does the founding of SpaceX and Blue Origin impact this picture?

Davenport: One of the things Elon Musk wanted to do from the beginning was to generate new interest in space.

Actually, before he founded SpaceX, he had the idea to land a plant on the surface of Mars to show that he could do it and to galvanize interest in space in an attempt to increase funding for NASA. But let's not forget that NASA has embraced SpaceX and is beginning to embrace Blue Origin. SpaceX wouldn't exist without NASA. NASA awarded it its first big contracts, it awarded their contracts to fly cargo to the International Space Station and now to fly crews to the International Space Station.

OR: Both SpaceX and Blue Origin are closing in on two decades of operation. What do you think each has gotten right and what do you think each has gotten wrong?

Davenport: Look at SpaceX's track record. They were able to, against all odds, to get a rocket to go to orbit. Nobody has thought some crazy South African-born entrepreneur would be able to start a space company and be successful, to take on the entrenched interests in Washington and the military-industrial complex. They were able to do that and break their way in and win contracts from NASA and the Pentagon so they could build a rocket and land it, and they've done that many, many times. They have landed 27 rocket boosters and re-flown 15 of them. They've got a huge backlog of customers not just including NASA and the Pentagon, but commercial customers.

What they get wrong? Elon Musk constantly throws out these timelines that are way too ambitious and that he doesn't make, saying we're going to launch on this date and we're going to colonize Mars on this date. People look at those and laugh. While he hasn't hit his timeline, he's done so far everything he said he was going to do. Remember the Falcon Heavy? People thought that was going to explode and it was a success.

You're seeing a real willingness from them to partner with NASA not just on the contracts they have now to low Earth orbit, but on their deep space ambitions. I think they do realize that it's so difficult, it's so expensive. They're going to need all the help they can get.

With Blue Origin, they've been flying their New Shepard vehicle, but it doesn't go to orbit. It goes up and then it comes straight down. But they were so secretive for so long. They didn't just show anything in the press, they weren't talking to NASA or potential customers, they kept it all in-house. It's very secretive.

The idea being: when we've done something we'll talk about it. For years and years and years they were just moving slowly and deliberately. That's by choice and decision. Their mascot is the tortoise. Now, they're trying to come out of the box a little bit. They're going to, they say, start flying humans on their New Shepard vehicle potentially by the end of this year. They have their New Glenn rocket, which should fly by 2020. They're going to need customers for that.

They're starting to come out a little bit and be more vocal and open and transparent, but I wonder if their years and years of secrecy haven't hurt them in that regard.

OR: What do the economics of the new business of space look like?

Davenport: SpaceX got several billion dollars in contracts from the government to fly cargo and then crew to the International Space Station. They get contracts from the Pentagon to launch military satellites. It's very lucrative.

Those Pentagon contracts that that's where the money is and SpaceX from a very, very early on had that in its sights. A company called the United Launch Alliance, which is a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, had essentially a monopoly on those contracts for a decade. Elon Musk challenged that, sued the very agency that he wanted to be his customer in an attempt to gain access for the right to compete for those contracts. He ultimately ended up settling and then winning some of those contracts and breaking into that market. They have a huge backlog of flying commercial satellites. We’re hearing them talk more about flying people. They've got two missions signed up. One we don't know anything about; another one is to fly a pair of people around the moon. So far they've been a successful company financially.

Blue Origin has been so secretive. Jeff Bezos has said he's been putting a billion dollars into Blue Origin a year and that it is some of the most expensive work he's doing, but they haven't had much revenue at all. I think they've got one NASA contract, a relatively small one. They've signed up a few customers here and there for their New Glenn — commercial satellite providers.