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Christian Davenport on the new space race

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.

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.”

No one has been back to space since on a commercial rocket. So you want to look at it with some skepticism, but everything that they’ve been able to accomplish so far leads you to believe that they very well could be successful here.

Now, opening up any frontier is dangerous and risky and it is entirely possible that people are going to die along the way. What happens when a tourist dies on one of these commercially operated vehicles? Does the government come in and start to regulate this? Do they make it more difficult? Or do they see that opening up the frontier is akin to climbing to Mt. Everest or going bungee jumping or skydiving and that if you want to put yourself on one of those boosters, you acknowledge the risk? We don’t know exactly how that’s going to play out.

OR: Do you see a human landing on Mars sometime in the next 80 to 100 years?

Davenport: In 80 to 100 years? Yes. I think that’s a much more reasonable timeframe than the 2030 number that sometimes gets bandied around — particularly if you’re talking about some public-private partnership or maybe even an international partnership.

OR: What is it really going to take in terms of changes in technology and social attitudes to get us to the point where off-Earth life is possible?

Davenport: Something like 560 people have ever been to space. That’s it. Imagine, though, if even just suborbital guys start taking people up on a weekly basis. Imagine if they succeed there and are able to do it successfully. Then in five or 10 years not hundreds but thousands (and perhaps many thousands) of people are going up into space.

That number grows exponentially from 560. They’ve had that experience where they’ve been into space and seen the blackness and the vastness of space. They’ve seen the curvature of the earth, the beauty of the earth without any boundaries or lines. They’ve seen the seam line of the atmosphere. They have seen the view that astronauts see and is really transformative. And they come back to earth and start talking about that.

Right now life in space seems strictly in the realm of science fiction and movies. But if thousands of people are getting that view and having that experience, I think that could effect a fundamental change in the way we view ourselves and view the Earth.

OR: What are the biggest misconceptions about these companies and the larger enterprise they are engaged in?

Davenport: I’d say two things. One, these guys are serious about it. Anybody with Jeff Bezos’ resources who says that this is one of the most important things he’s doing  . . . they say in journalism: follow the money. Right? If you’re following how the richest man in the world is spending his money, that shows you how important he thinks it is.

Someone asked Elon Musk a few years ago, “What do you say to the people who say you can’t do this?” His answer was: “I’ve done it. I’ve flown to orbit, I’ve flown cargo to the International Space Station, I’m trying to fly humans.” People don’t realize that NASA right now isn’t flying human beings, Russia is.

Perhaps most importantly, we now have real competition between not just Boeing and SpaceX and Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance and Virgin Galactic. You’ve got this whole confluence of people coming in and pushing each other.

Will there be a self-sustaining economy that supports this without NASA and without the Pentagon? That remains to be seen, but these guys are really pushing each other and they know that, despite all lingering tensions between them, this is a good thing. They know the value of competition. When I interviewed Elon Musk for the book, he said, “Look, if I had a button that I could press that would make Blue Origin and Jeff Bezos go away, I would not press that button.” He knows that the race between them is good for both of them.