The New Space Race

The old Space Race, between the United States and the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War, is on full display in the excellent film First Man.  The new space race doesn’t have the same ideological, future of civilization elements as the old one, and is a lot more multi-faceted, but it’s just as important to our long-term future in space.

And right now, the United States is winning.

wvws_falcon-heavy-demo-2310The new space race focuses on commercial spaceflight and launching vehicles into space.  For years, the United States was playing catch-up to the Europeans, and trailing badly.  The Euros were launching the majority of satellites and vehicles into space, using their Ariane rocket, while the United States was retiring its primary launch vehicle, the space shuttle, without having any back-up in place.  In 2011, when the shuttle was retired, there were no commercial satellite launches from any American spaceports, and for the next few years the launch industry was dominated by the Europeans, the Russians, and the Chinese, launching from government-backed providers.

But now the tide has turned.  America led the way in commercial launches in 2016 and 2017, and 2018 is shaping up to be even better.  The trend is so pronounced that European advocates are afraid that they are falling behind and won’t catch up.

The reason for trend is that the United States has made room for commercial entities, like SpaceX, to enter the launching game.  While the United States government still is a major player in space, SpaceX’s focus on innovation and cost control, through use of reusable rockets, have made it extremely competitive in bidding for launch jobs, whether it is commercial satellites being placed into orbit or missions to the international space station.  And new entrants to the competition, like Blue Origin, are set to participate — which is likely to make the American lead even more pronounced.  The article linked above notes:  “the uniquely American approach of government support and investment in private space is paying dividends, creating an industry that could swallow the comparatively moribund European effort.”

It’s nice to know that American capitalism, and good old-fashioned competition, can still produce innovation and leadership — and now in space.

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Watching The Launch

When I was a kid back in the ’60s, we used to be trooped into the school auditorium at Rankin Elementary School in Akron, Ohio to watch every launch of every rocket that was taking an American astronaut into space.  Between the countdowns, and the holds, and the cryptic communications of “launch control,” and the possibility of a disaster, and Walter Cronkite urging “go, baby, go!,” rocket launches were almost unbearably exciting.  And when NASA started launched the enormous Saturn V rockets that were used to propel the Apollo missions to the Moon, which were among the loudest devices ever made by humanity, the spectacle became even more intense.

So I watched the video of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket yesterday, beginning with the rocket on the familiar Cape Canaveral/Cape Kennedy launchpad, heard the countdown, saw the smoke and the flames and the rocket pushing slowly and inexorably against the titanic forces of gravity to slip the surly bonds of Earth and go soaring into space, and it brought those memories all back, and produced the same kind of tingle and hairs-standing-on-end feeling that I got in those long ago days in the school auditorium.

I’m glad the launch was a success and that SpaceX was able to successfully land two of the side boosters back on Earth, although the main booster was not successfully retrieved.  It’s a huge achievement and step forward for a company that is one of the leaders of the movement toward getting us back into space.  And I’m glad that, thanks to the efforts of the Falcon Heavy thrusters, Elon Musk’s Tesla roadster and a “Starman” wearing a SpaceX uniform have been successfully thrown out past Mars, where they will orbit around the Sun forever.

But mostly, I’m just glad that I got to see a huge rocket launch again.  Deep down, I’d still love to be an astronaut.

Investing In Space

Let’s say your modest portfolio in the stock market has had a good run over the past year or so, and you’re looking for a new investment opportunity.  Let’s posit, further, that you think Bitcoin is a curious bubble that’s going to burst someday, and that you’d rather put your money into a company that produces something more tangible and more futuristic.

Well, what about space?

fh-onpadSpaceX is racking up a number of impressive accomplishments.  Last month SpaceX successfully tested its Falcon Heavy Rocket, and it is moving forward on launching what it calls the most powerful operational rocket in the world.  The Falcon Heavy launch is set for next week, on February 6, from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  The successful launch of the Falcon Heavy would join other stellar (pun intended) SpaceX accomplishments, like being the first company to launch a rocket with payload into space and then land the rocket back on Earth, and being the first company to relaunch an already used rocket.  SpaceX also built the first private spacecraft to dock with the international space station, and it’s shown it can reuse the spacecraft, too.  If you’re trying to make space a commercially viable enterprise, developing reusable rocket technology and reusable spacecraft technology, to hold down the cost, is a crucial first step — and SpaceX looks like the leader in taking that step.

But here’s the thing:  you can’t invest directly in SpaceX.  It’s a private company, and its founder Elon Musk has said he won’t take it public until the company has started to make flights to Mars.  Why?  Because Musk is afraid that if the company goes public before then, there’s a chance that the stockholders will pressure the board to focus on things other than colonizing Mars — which is Musk’s goal and is bound to be more expensive and difficult than, say, establishing Moon exploration bases or mining asteroids for precious metals.  It’s not an unreasonable fear on Musk’s part.  So if you want to own a piece of SpaceX, you can only do so indirectly, by investing in Alphabet, which owns a piece of SpaceX as well as parts of Google, YouTube, and other things.

Okay, so SpaceX isn’t currently available for the intrepid investor who wants to get into the space exploration game.  Are there other options?  It’s not easy to determine, because a lot of the companies that are touching upon space issues — like Boeing, for example — are better known for producing other objects.  But you can start to get a sense of what’s out there by looking for lists like this one, on potential investment opportunities involving space, or looking for articles about company announcements related to space activities and then figuring out whether they are publicly traded.

It’s not easy for the casual investor.  What we really need is for one of the stock exchanges to create a “space index,” just like there’s a Dow Jones “transportation index.”  The index would identify the space-related public companies, mutual funds would be established to invest in each of the space index companies, and those of us who’d like to put our money in the heavens could buy into the mutual funds.

Hey stockbrokers!  How about giving investors interested in space some help here?

Space Suit Chic

We’ve got a little bit of a “space race” going these days, 50 years after the first one.  This particular space race is about which commercial entity is going to be the provider of choice for both travel and delivery of space-related services — like creating working flight suits that people would wear on space voyages, and other necessary components of routine life in space.

space-x-suitLast week SpaceX unveiled the look of its flight suit to great fanfare.  Some people described the suit — which is sleek, futuristic, and basic black and white — as looking like the imperial stormtrooper outfits from Star Wars, but it clearly has a certain style.  Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, says the suit is functional, not a mock-up, and has been tested to double vacuum pressure.  Interestingly, Musk also noted that SpaceX was focused on both esthetics and functionality in designing the suit, and that is was “incredibly hard” to balance the two, while focusing on one or the other would have been a lot easier.

Earlier this year, Boeing gave us a peek at its version of a flight suit, which passengers would wear on the Boeing Starliner spacecraft that is intended to deliver passengers to places in low-Earth orbit, like the International Space Station.  Boeing’s announcement got a less less attention than the SpaceX unveiling, but then Boeing isn’t quite as cool as SpaceX.  Boeing’s flight suit, which is “Boeing Blue” in color, looks a lot more like an updated version of the Apollo suits we remember from the glory days of moon shots and lunar rovers in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

space_suit_630Of course, Boeing and SpaceX are just two of the companies vying for supremacy in the corporatization of space, and flight suit design isn’t going to finally and conclusively determine who gets a leg up in the competition.  But the disclosure of things like flight suits is important nevertheless.  It shows that companies are hard at work on the necessary nuts and bolts of spaceflight, and you can bet that for every item, like flight suits, that get public attention there are dozens of less interesting devices that are being developed, streamlined, and perfected.

The unveiling of flights suits has another important function, too:  getting people talking about spaceflight again.  When I was growing up, it seemed like just about every kid wanted to be an astronaut, and the space program was a constant topic of conversation.  In the cool occupation pyramid, “astronaut” was at the pinnacle.  The aspirational dreams of youngsters may not have made a difference in how the American space program was operated, but it provided an important core of support for NASA, and many of us still harbor those inner dreams even though the manned space program has basically had a 45-year hiatus.  If the disclosure of the SpaceX and Boeing flight suits cause kids to begin dreaming about space again, it would be a good thing for those of us who feel that our future lies out among the stars.

Recover, Reuse, Relaunch

Yesterday the SpaceX venture reached a new milestone:  the company took a used rocket that it had recovered from a prior mission, relaunched it into space, deposited a customer’s satellite into orbit, and landed the rocket on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean so it can be used again, and again, and again.

falcon-9-dscovr-launchAs I’ve written before, private, commercial ventures like SpaceX are making significant progress in making space flight a common, everyday option.  Yesterday’s flight was a key development in that effort, because a significant part of the cost of space flight has been rockets that are designed, built, and used only once.  That single-use approach might have been viable back in the ’60s, when government funding was plentiful and the United States was on a national quest to be the first country to land a man on the Moon, but it’s simply not sustainable or feasible in our modern world of massive budget deficits and competing national priorities.  It’s also an approach that commercial space concerns could never afford.  That’s why SpaceX has been focused on developing technology that allows those expensive rockets to be reused.

No one should take away from the mighty, ground-breaking accomplishments of the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and space shuttle programs, and there remains a key role for governments in space exploration.  Governments will always have more resources than businesses do, and the need for scientific exploration, and the technological developments that seem to inevitably accompany it, will often fall to governmental entities like NASA.  But profit-making entities and capitalist risk-takers are adept at building on the foundation the government has laid and figuring out how to make things affordable and, not incidentally, profitable.

If tourist trips to the Moon and settlements on Mars are in our future — and I hope they are, because I still hold out hope that I might see a glorious Earthrise from the Moon some day — commercial concerns inevitably will play a huge role.  SpaceX’s reusable rocket technology is another important step forward toward a future in which the “final frontier” becomes a much more accessible place.

To Mars, And Beyond

This week, Elon Musk of SpaceX announced his plans for getting humanity to Mars.  The plans involve massive rockets, trips by 100 passengers every 26 months, and deliveries of supplies and housing — all with an ultimate goal of establishing an independent, self-sustaining colony on the Red Planet.

mars-colonial-bThere’s still a lot of details in Musk’s ambitious plans to be filled in — like figuring out how in the heck the massive rocket is going to paid for, and how they are going to get materials sufficient to keep 100 people alive for months on a planet that is basically a cold desert.  Critics think the Musk plans, in their current form, are implausible.  They almost certainly are, of course.  The key point, though, is that somebody is actually thinking about how to accomplish passenger space travel and is doing something about it.

Musk isn’t the only one who is thinking about space.  SpaceX has shown that there is commercial value in space, and Jeff Bezos, the multi-billionaire founder of Amazon, has his own space development company with plans to launch satellites . . . and ultimately, people who would colonize the solar system.  NASA, too, is proceeding with Mars mission planning.

We seem to be on the cusp of a tipping point, where talk about colonizing Mars is moving from the dreams and visions of science fiction writers to fundraising, timetables, and engineering reality.  In my view, it’s about time.  Whereas Musk thinks we need a colony on Mars to protect our species from extinction through a cataclysmic event on Earth, I think we need to get a toehold in space to change our Earthbound perspectives, broaden our horizons, and reintroduce an explorer’s mentality to our world.

It’s good to see internet billionaires using some of their cash to open new worlds and opportunities to humanity.   We may not know what’s out there, yet, but let’s find out!

Enter The Dragon

SpaceX’s Dragon capsule has successfully rendevoused with the International Space Station and has been snagged by the space station’s robot arm.

The Dragon capsule therefore becomes the first privately owned space vehicle to reach the ISS.  This morning the astronauts on the space station opened the capsule and entered it, conducted a quick inspection and found no sign of any problems with the interior, and indeed reported that the capsule had that familiar “new car smell.”  So far, SpaceX’s Falcon rocket and its Dragon capsule have performed flawlessly — reaching orbit, conducting the maneuvering tests that showed that the capsule could safely be brought near the ISS, and then ultimately delivering the payload.

We now have a private company with the technology and human know-how to put a vehicle into space and haul cargo to an orbiting destination.  The Dragon’s successful delivery is a huge step forward toward increased exploration and development of space, in an era where commercial entities will bear an increasingly significant part of the cost — and, not incidentally, will look to reap profit from their investments.  With SpaceX leading the way, other companies will not be far behind.