Liftoff

An Interview with Christian Davenport

They've indicated that they want to compete for national security launches and that they're going to next year (possibly) start flying tourists on their suborbital space craft New Shepard, which could be a line of revenue for them.  As of right now their main source of revenue is just Bezos's bank account.

OR: What are the structural advantages disruptors enjoy in this space, and how have the companies changed over time?

Davenport: SpaceX is now almost 7,000 people. They've grown. They're getting really big, but they still in many ways see themselves as the young innovators and swashbucklers. I think that's still the case, that they haven't really lost that edge.

One of the stories I tell in the book that really gets to the ethos of SpaceX is that for one of their very first flights, their Falcon 9 rocket, they did the pre-flight inspection the day before and noticed there was a crack in the second-stage engine nozzle.

If you're anybody else, you would pull the rocket down off the pad, take it apart, inspect it, look at your manufacturing procedures, do an investigation and figure out what happened. You'd be delayed months. Elon Musk gathered his team together and many of them thought that's what they were going to have to do, but instead he said, "What if we cut around the crack, as if it were a little crack on your fingernail and you just clipped it?"

As a second-stage engine nozzle it had already been up in space, and they had built some margin into it. So the engineers crunched their numbers and did the math and said, "Yeah. We can still hit our target in orbit. We're not going to have as much performance, but we can still hit it." They said, "Let's do it," and they sent a guy and they cut around the crack and they launched the next day and they didn't delay.

Would SpaceX do that today with all that it has riding on its shoulders? Probably not. But that's the way they think. I think the same is true at Blue Origin. They're not a big government contractor. There hire engineers in aerospace but also bring the Silicon Valley ethos that wants to move faster and push the envelope.

OR: What are the next big hurdles companies like this face?

Davenport: The next big hurdle and milestone — and this is probably one of the most significant — is human spaceflight. For all the attention that SpaceX and Blue Origin get, the fact of the matter is that neither of them have ever flown a single human being. That may change very soon. That's what they're all about: lowering the cost of space and making it more accessible for ordinary people. Lots and lots of them.

This year you could have the first on the first test flight of the Blue Origin New Shepard with several people aboard. SpaceX is on the verge of flying NASA's astronauts to the International Space Station. The crews have been announced. They said they're scheduled to do that by next April and that date has been continuously delayed, but this in a way is what it's all about. They want to be able to fly people quickly, routinely, and often.

The Space Shuttle and NASA obviously were flying a lot of people into low Earth orbit, but they never achieved the launch cadence and reliability that these companies are hoping to achieve. We don't know if they're going to be able to do that. They're going to have to show that not only can they launch a lot and reliably, but do it with humans onboard.

SpaceX last year launched 18 times, a record for them. They're on pace to do even more this year and if they're able to launch people on a routine basis, monthly or weekly, that would be a huge shift. That's what Blue Origin wants to do as well; so does Virgin Galactic. To get more people up there and have spaceflight be much more routine, then bring the cost down, open it up to more people.

OR: What is the single biggest obstruction standing in the way of that strategic goal?

Davenport: Developing the vehicles, the rockets and also the spacecraft to ensure that they're safe and that they are robust and that they cannot just fly a single flight safely with humans onboard, but that they can do it again and again, over and over. That takes a lot of engineering work, and a lot of development. That's what they've been working on for all these years.

Now, after all of that work and development, they're at the stage where they're going to begin to at least start trying to do that. We'll see if those efforts have been successful.

OR: Do you see a coming democratization of commercial space flight over the next century? Are we standing on the cusp of a new Age of Discovery?

Davenport: That's the goal of these companies. They see the dawn of a new commercial space age where there's a tipping point, where government's monopoly on it has ended and the commercial providers have come in to invest their money, time, energy, resources, and technology — to take that capability and elevate it.

1903 was the year of the first powered flight. By 1955 more Americans were traveling by commercial airlines than taking the railroad. It's not a perfect analogy, but that's what these guys want to happen. It's worth noting, though, that there have been attempts at this before that have failed. Space is just far, far more difficult than being on a ship or a commercial airplane.

Getting to orbit is dangerous and hard and there are huge technological challenges. There's a reason why it's been dominated by governments and nations: they are the only ones who had the resources to do it. But you may remember that in 2004 the Ansari X Prize — the Paul Allen-backed venture led by Burt Rutan — sent a vehicle past the threshold of space three times. Everyone thought: “That's it. This is the new space age. This is the commercial era.”