Rocket Men

The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos BY Christian Davenport. PublicAffairs. Hardcover, 320 pages. $28

February’s test launch of Elon Musk’s new Falcon Heavy rocket was probably the most expensive and most glorious publicity stunt in the history of advertising: flame and smoke, and then videos of the space-suited mannequin in the cherry-red Tesla Roadster, David Bowie on the stereo, Hitchhiker’s “DON’T PANIC!” on the dashboard screen. Behind this promotion was the promise that Musk’s company SpaceX will soon be sending colonists to the planet Mars. But although the car is on a trajectory that will pass the orbit of Mars later this year, it won’t get anywhere close to the Red Planet, and the Heavy, despite the prodigious thrust of its twenty-seven engines, couldn’t send a vehicle loaded with astronauts and their supplies all the way there. The fourth planet is still a far place, beyond human visitation for some time, no matter how wealthy the humans happen to be.

As breathlessly reported by Christian Davenport in The Space Barons, Musk isn’t the only billionaire entrepreneur burning through vast amounts of refined kerosene and liquid oxygen. Richard Branson has resumed testing his Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo after the 2014 accident that claimed the life of a test pilot. Paul Allen, one of the Microsoft founders, is developing the Stratolaunch, the biggest airplane in the world, to launch shuttles and satellites from an altitude of thirty thousand feet. Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin rockets have flown into suborbital space and, like the SpaceX rockets, they’ve returned to touch down near their launch sites, descending through clouds of smoke onto their tail fins, like a 1950s Hollywood conception of a rocket landing.

Davenport, a reporter at the Washington Post, celebrates the burgeoning private space industry, which now regularly launches payloads into orbit, but he devotes the bulk of his book to Musk and the Amazon founder, and their grander ambitions. Heeding the conventions mandated by this kind of narrative nonfiction, Davenport makes Bezos and Musk contrasting figures as he tries to create drama from their rivalry. “Obsessed with secrecy,” he writes, Bezos “was as quiet and slow as Musk was loud and fast.” Bezos is the “tortoise,” Musk, the obvious frontrunner, the “hare,” or the “pied piper, leading his merry band of rocketeers.” The slogan of Bezos’s own company, Blue Origin, is Gradatim Ferociter, “step by step, ferociously”—though not necessarily to the same place as Musk. Jeff “One-Click” Bezos, as Musk calls him derisively, has less interest in Mars than in floating celestial cities and factories. “My singular focus is people in space,” Bezos says. “I want people in space.”

The first of Bezos’s people will be tourists flown by Blue Origin on ten-minute round-trips to the edge of the atmosphere, at an altitude of about sixty miles. Musk agrees there’s a market for space tourism; boldly, or rashly, he has promised to fly two anonymous, deep-pocketed paying tourists around the moon in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule. The launch was envisioned for early this year, but it has been put off. Musk now says that once the Crew Dragon is operational he hopes to carry NASA astronauts to the International Space Station.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch, CA, December 22, 2017. Kevin Gill/Wikicommons.

Space enthusiasts are counting on Musk, Bezos, and other businessmen to pick up the slack left by a NASA that has supposedly failed to provide leadership in human space flight. Davenport, who works on the Post’s financial desk, emphasizes this story line, reporting that one NASA administrator, visiting the Blue Origin facility, was “stunned [at] how efficient private industry could be.” Like Davenport, many Americans have come to accept the notion of corporate superiority as an article of faith. Accordingly, NASA is too cautious; NASA is too bureaucratic; NASA is wasteful; NASA has too many regulations. The initiative that sent astronauts to the moon in the 1960s can be recaptured only by the new private space corporations, their brand identities revolving around the hard-driving personalities of their celebrated founders. The launch of the Tesla was not only a larky display of conspicuous consumption and brand-building for Musk’s two engineering companies; it was an affirmation of entrepreneurial capitalism.

Forty-six years after the last Apollo landing, it’s easy to be frustrated by the fact that astronauts haven’t returned to the moon or flown any farther past it. It’s especially easy to be impatient with NASA, which lost the capacity to launch its own astronauts after the final space shuttle flight, in 2011, since then relying on the Russians to get them to the space station orbiting Earth. NASA's been compiling and scrapping plans for new crewed space vehicles since the 1980s. Its Reagan-era promise to send astronauts to Mars by 2015 wasn’t met, of course, and later deadlines for space travel set by George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush were blown past at warp speed. Barack Obama called for a Mars landing in the 2030s. President Trump recently demanded a new mission to the moon as an intermediate step, another precipitous shift in priorities and timelines.

NASA's apparent fecklessness has less to do with bureaucratic inefficiency than with the inability to maintain long-term commitments from one president to the next. Every administration is forced to learn on its own that a trip to Mars is several orders of magnitude more difficult than the Apollo missions. The entrepreneurs will soon learn that, too. It took the Apollo astronauts about three days to get to the moon. At its closest approach the fourth planet is at least 150 times farther. The shortest practical flight would last about seven months. The lunar program cost more than $100 billion in today’s dollars. A Mars shot, which would require proportionately more supplies and proportionately more rocket power, would be much more expensive, probably by close to a trillion dollars, far out of any mere billionaire’s reach.

Even the simplest crewed flight to Mars would require technology that doesn’t exist, not in SpaceX’s patents or in NASA's. Nor can we predict when this technology will ever exist, according to the definitive report on the prospects for a Mars mission, issued in 2014 by the National Research Council. The report, Pathways to Exploration, examined the intermediate measures NASA would need to take before mounting a Mars expedition. It identifies, among other challenges, one apparently adamantine impasse: There is no known way of keeping astronauts, or even Roadsters, safe from long-term exposure to interplanetary space radiation. The carbon-based components of the Tesla launched in February will disintegrate within a year, according to one organic chemist.

These expenses and these challenges can hardly be minimized by any single capitalist and his company, even if, as Musk says, “the radiation thing is not too big of a deal.” We may deride NASA, but Davenport’s risk-taking, visionary billionaires, almost two decades after starting their businesses, have yet to put a single man or woman into orbit, a feat NASA accomplished within four years of being established. The tourists who have so far reached space have, like their NASA co-passengers, bought their Soyuz seats from a Russian government agency.

The Falcon Heavy may eventually be capable of a touristic flight around the moon, but Musk’s expedition to Mars would demand an even more powerful launch vehicle. Now under development at SpaceX, it’s referred to in-house as the BFR, for “Big Fucking Rocket.” When you own the company, you can be as irreverent as you like. When you have a net worth of $20 billion, you can invest in a very expensive preoccupation.

Musk’s Mars obsession is driven by concern that terrestrial civilization may someday be destroyed. He and other would-be pioneers envision self-sustaining, million-resident cities on the planet’s rocky, low-gravity, not-quite-temperate surface within the next forty to one hundred years. This is a refreshingly wide window, but still one unlikely to be passed through. According to Davenport, Musk now intends to deposit the first settlers on Mars by 2025. For this to happen, and for the passengers not to arrive dead, SpaceX would have to surmount the same daunting engineering challenges NASA faces, with considerably fewer resources.

The obvious and mistaken analogy invoked by science fiction and “the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos,” as Davenport’s overblown subtitle puts it, is the European settlement of the Americas, the model for space exploration since human travel beyond the atmosphere was conceived. But the analogy fails to convey the actual reality of space and the actual hostile conditions on other planets. When Columbus “discovered” America, millions of people had already been living there for thousands of years. Its land, rivers, and coastal waters teemed with good things to eat. America had breathable air.

Space enthusiasts speak of humanity being saved by interplanetary colonization, but it wouldn’t be the whole of humanity going to Mars, of course, even if Musk charges no more than $200,000, the figure cited by Davenport for a ticket. The rest of us, and our children, will still have to face potential terrestrial catastrophe. Would we really care that other people (and their genetic material) were saved? Meanwhile, a Mars colony would demand Earth’s resources for decades or centuries to come. A new kind of built-in inequality is likely to be the natural consequence of a space settlement program established by a Silicon Valley billionaire.

Human space flight may ultimately prove to be a twentieth-century technology—a heavy, rust-belt kind of industry—that is being superseded in the digital twenty-first. Robotic probes, like the Cassini orbiter that spent thirteen years whizzing among Saturn’s rings and moons, and the New Horizons spacecraft that gave us our first up-close pictures of Pluto, are conducting the most valuable space exploration these days. Satellites and space probes need not be touched by the hands of astronauts. It’s hard to think of anything that now requires men and women in space except for experiments to see how well they adapt to space.

With its gee-whiz hyperbole and its portentious declarative sentences (“This time he would punch back”), The Space Barons itself feels like a twentieth-century artifact, from an age of more predictable journalism.The book ends with a characteristically vapid sentence fragment that describes the Bezos-Musk competition: “A race past even their own imaginations, deep into the cosmos, to a point in the beyond where there was no finish line.” But this kind of sentimentality isn’t getting anyone to Mars. They’ll instead need rockets, radiation protection, landing craft, self-sustaining life-support systems, and a compelling purpose. Human beings may someday set foot on the Red Planet, but the first of them probably haven’t been born yet.

Ken Kalfus’s most recent book is Coup de Foudre (Bloomsbury, 2015).