Elon Musk unveils the Dragon v2 spacecraft at SpaceX’s Hawthorne, California, facility on May 29, 2014. Credit: J. Foust

Space is big enough for ego and exploration

The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day can be a tough one in the media business. It’s typically a slow week, barring natural or human-made catastrophes. Many people are off, and for some publications, content can be hard to come by.

Maybe that explains one commentary published by Slate on December 30. Titled “The Billionaires’ Space Club,” science writer and journalism professor Charles Seife argued that two high profile commercial space ventures, SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, were not nearly as revolutionary as their respective founders, Elon Musk and Sir Richard Branson, claim. As the article’s subheading put it, “Catapulting the very rich into space isn’t new, and it isn’t about exploration.”

The growing role, and increasing influence, of commercial space ventures like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic has become one of the major issues of spaceflight in general today. Some see these and other so-called “NewSpace” companies as providing a breath of fresh air to a stale industry, opening new markets and lowering the cost of existing ones. Others argue that these companies have trouble delivering on their promises, and often rely on significant amounts of government funding and other support.

There is merit to both arguments, and thoughtful, nuanced analysis and commentary is certainly welcome, regardless of the source. Unfortunately, Seife’s essay falls short, both because of flawed arguments and incorrect information — the latter, surprisingly, getting past Slate’s editors.

Seife leads into his criticism of Branson and Musk by noting past failed efforts by the private sector to reduce the cost of space access. He’s quite right here: many companies have tried and failed to develop reusable launch vehicles or other systems that promised to lower launch costs, particularly during the late 1990s when demand for satellite launches from ventures like Iridium and Teledesic promised to be, well, astronomical.

What he doesn’t point out is that many of these companies failed as much for financial reasons as for technical ones. Of the companies he lists — Kelly Space and Technology, Kistler Aerospace, Pioneer Rocketplane, and Rotary Rocket — only Kistler was able to raise significant funding, and even then was grossly undercapitalized for the task at hand. For Seife’s “billionaires’ space club,” that’s far less of a concern: they were able to tap much larger amounts of personal or corporate funds to start their companies, at least until they could raise outside capital or generate revenue.

Seife is dismissive of SpaceX’s efforts to lower launch costs:

Imagine that Musk’s Falcon 9 spacecraft [sic] drives down the cost of launching payloads by 20 or 30 percent or even more in the near term. That’s nice, but it’s not really breaking new ground. Even if we believe Musk’s projected launch costs — which are likely optimistic — they are roughly the same as hitching a ride on Chinese rockets. (And I wouldn’t hold my breath for Musk to engineer a game-changing reduction in cost.)

There are several flaws here. One is the Falcon 9’s (a launch vehicle, not a spacecraft) ability to lower costs. SpaceX arguably has already achieved launch cost reductions in excess of Seife’s projected 20–30 percent. A Falcon 9 launch today goes for about $60 million. A launch on another vehicle with similar performance as the Falcon 9 may go for $100 million or more, depending on the vehicle and other customer requirements. (SpaceX is the exception in the industry in that it publishes its launch prices, making detailed price comparisons challenging.)

Seife dismisses such cost reductions as “not really breaking new ground.” However, you would be hard pressed to find a better price for that class of vehicle, which may explain why the company has been winning business from a number of commercial satellite operators around the world, most recently Qatari company Es’hailSat. Seife’s comparison to Chinese launches fails to take into account a key factor: export control regulations prohibit the export of any satellite with US-made components to China for launch, largely shutting that nation out of the commercial launch market.

SpaceX, of course, is interested in breaking new ground: the company has been working on technologies to make at least the first stage of the Falcon 9 reusable and, thus, make launches less expensive. On the next Falcon 9 launch, slated for January 6 from Cape Canaveral, the company will attempt to land the first stage on a barge in the Atlantic, downrange of the launch site. It sounds daring — and it is, to be certain — but the company has already demonstrated it can bring that stage back to Earth in a controlled manner, “landing” it on the ocean surface.

Such an effort faces challenges, both technical (can a rocket stage be recovered and reused) and economic (can the company actually make money from reusing the stage). Seife, though, dismisses the effort with a brief parenthetical: “(And I wouldn’t hold my breath for Musk to engineer a game-changing reduction in cost.)” It’s understandable to be skeptical — many in the space industry are of SpaceX’s efforts — but to complain that SpaceX isn’t “breaking new ground” with its existing vehicle and then dismiss its effort to do just that without explanation doesn’t seem reasonable.

Seife’s analysis of Virgin Galactic suffers an even more fundamental flaw:

Imagine that Branson, with his brilliantly named SpaceShipTwo, succeeds at getting a few hundred celebrities into orbit — somehow, miraculously, not killing any of them. Even so, his plans for quarter-million-dollar rides, let alone a thriving orbital tourism industry, are unsustainable in even the near term. The math simply doesn’t add up.

Seife then goes on to do some math, but it’s based on a major non-mathematical error: that Virgin Galactic is in the orbital space tourism business. SpaceShipTwo is, in fact, a suborbital vehicle, designed to carry up to eight people to altitudes of about 100 kilometers. SpaceShipTwo doesn’t go into orbit, and flies at only a fraction of orbital velocity. All of Seife’s calculations about orbital launch costs (which themselves have flaws: the price per pound he quotes for Virgin’s LauncherOne isn’t necessarily applicable to larger vehicles, where economies of scale reduce per-pound costs) are moot.

One can only assume Slate’s editors were off this past week to explain how this error got through. It’s difficult to imagine a student of Professor Seife’s turning in a class assignment with such factual errors and getting a passing grade.

All this criticism of Branson and Musk’s space ventures appears rooted in a misinterpretation of what they’re doing. “The more recent trend is billionaires making fleets of rocket ships for private space exploration,” Seife writes in the essay’s first paragraph. Later, after his flawed analysis of Virgin Galactic pricing, he writes, “Neither Musk’s nor Branson’s goals really seem to break new ground, despite all the talk of exploration.”

However, there’s a lot more to space than exploration. Space is essential to national defense, and it’s also a multihundred-billion-dollar business, primarily in the form communications services provided by satellites in orbit. Less expensive launch options have the potential to enable new capabilities and services in space. And, yes, they can support exploration as well, by lowering the cost and increasing the frequency of space launch, opening new opportunities for scientists who want to study the solar system and the universe.

These, though, seem lost on Seife, who chalks up these billionaires’ interest in space to ego versus exploration, as if these are the only two options available. Ego likely does play a role in Branson’s and Musk’s, but it would hardly be the first time that entrepreneurs or captains of industry have been driven by it. And ego isn’t necessarily a bad thing — so long as it’s not the only thing. (“It ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up,” said baseball pitcher Dizzy Dean, who backed up his bragging with a career that landed him in the Hall of Fame.)

It remains to be seen if both companies can, in the long run, back up the bragging that rubs Seife the wrong way. They face significant challenges in the next few years, which he, oddly, largely overlooks in his essay. Both companies have suffered schedule slips that have delayed the entry of their vehicles by years. Virgin Galactic is recovering from a crash on a test flight October 31 that destroyed the company’s first SpaceShipTwo vehicle and killed its co-pilot. SpaceX faces questions about its ability to deliver on its launch manifest: the company only performed six launches in 2014, less than the ten it said it would carry out in the year.

Branson and Musk also aren’t the only billionaires with an interest in spaceflight. Seife doesn’t mention Jeff Bezos, a man wealthier than either Branson or Musk who has put several hundred million dollars of his own money into Blue Origin, a company also interested in reusable launch vehicles that is also developing a rocket engine in cooperation with United Launch Alliance (ULA) to replace the Russian-built RD-180 currently used by ULA’s Atlas V.

“My vision is, I want to see millions of people living and working in space,” Bezos said in a recent interview. “I think it’s important. I also just love it.” One wonders whether Seife would consider that ambitious vision sufficiently “breaking new ground.” Perhaps Slate’s editors can check in on that once they’re back from holiday break.

(Disclaimer: the opinions expressed here are solely my own. I’m not speaking for my employer or any other organization here.)

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