Fly Me To The Moon

Originally published in Little White Lies

In June 2011 the Economist ran a headline that it claimed summed up a sense of international despair. ‘The End Of The Space Age’ was a withering obituary on what it saw as the mortified remains of space exploration: the space shuttle, which would complete its final mission the following month, had been ‘nothing but trouble’; the ‘benighted’ International Space Station (ISS) was ‘the biggest waste of money, at $100 billion and counting, that has ever been built in the name of science’. China might still be talking about a manned mission to Mars sometime before 2060, but for the western powers at least, the lure of the stars had lost its lustre.

Such accusations rest on any number of factors; some believe that federal sponsored space exploration is too bound up by bureaucratic red tape; others blame the politicisation of space travel, or the monstrous costs involved in sending men and women beyond Earth’s atmosphere. But underneath it all lies a more serious claim: that the ancient hunger for exploring worlds beyond our own no longer exists. It might be less than 40 years old, but John F Kennedy’s rousing speech about choosing to go to the moon “because new hopes for knowledge and peace are there” is of another age entirely. Buoyed by Cold War politics and the spread of science fiction, the astronauts of the ’60s and ’70s were popular heroes, their achievements seeming to momentarily unify humanity as it reached for the stars.

No more. Instead, many believe we’ve learned nothing in the subsequent decades but our limitations; that we’ve blanched at the emptiness surrounding Earth and rushed home, tails between our legs, fulfilling a prophecy envisioned in 1959 by Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens Of Titan, in which astronauts flung ‘like stones’ into space found only ‘what had already been found in abundance on Earth: a nightmare of meaningless without end’.

It’s a view given short shrift at the California offices of Space Exploration Technologies Corp, or SpaceX, set up by PayPal cofounder Elon Musk in 2002 – the same year his online payment provider was sold to eBay for $1.5 billion. In less than a decade SpaceX has positioned itself at the forefront of a raft of private space exploration companies vying for both commercial and federal contracts: in June 2010 it inked a $492 million deal to deploy Iridium telecommunications satellites with its Falcon rockets, and it will soon begin running cargo missions to and from the ISS via its Dragon spaceships as part of a twelve-mission, $1.6 billion contract with NASA, filling the hole left by the retired shuttle in the process. For SpaceX, at least, the end of the space age is nowhere in sight.

“It’s the absolute opposite,” says spokeswoman Kirstin Brost Grantham. “It’s the end of one era, but it’s the necessary end of that era if we’re going to move forward. NASA has always hired private companies to build its craft; the difference now is in contracting. We’re looking to have a private partnership where we bring in private investment and free market principles. And when you bring in competition, that forces every company to compete on cost, reliability and safety. It may start as a race for Earth’s orbit, but it’s going to expand opportunities for space travel that we’ve never seen before.”

SpaceX founder Elon Musk harbours a boyhood dream of colonising other worlds

The cost issue is a critical one. Despite the enormous sums being signed away by federal and commercial contracts, SpaceX’s success over its competitors is largely due to its ability to reduce prices. It has been the expense of space exploration, rather than technological limitations, that has stalled progress in the past: the iPhone may be a billion times more powerful per unit currency than the room-filling supercomputers in operation around the time man first stepped on the moon, but the amount of fuel needed to break out of the atmosphere means that a similar upscaling of efficiency has so far proved impossible in space travel. Yet through a willingness to experiment with new designs and invest in new materials and fuels, SpaceX is managing to offer comparatively cut-price flights. Its forthcoming Falcon Heavy rocket is expected to carry up to 53,000kg payloads for $100 million per launch, one third the cost of the Delta IV rocket sold by major competitor United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Cheaper launches mean more missions; more missions mean mankind can progress faster and go further. Ultimately, however, all companies circle the somewhat mythological idea that a craft will one day be entirely reusable, taking off, entering orbit and returning to Earth without having to jettison rocket stages en route. The shuttle was only partially reusable (the solid rocket boosters could be reused after several months refitting work, but the external fuel tank was typically discarded); if a completely reusable, quick turnaround craft were invented, it would revolutionise space travel. A fanciful idea, some think, but not to those at SpaceX.

“That is our goal,” says Kirstin. “Every time you burn up a rocket on re-entry it’s the equivalent of having to buy a brand new $200 million Boeing 747 each time you fly from Washington to London. Of every $100 million space launch, perhaps only $100,000 is fuel. Once we figure out a way of reusing vehicles, we’re talking about an amazing decrease in costs. Some people think it’s impossible, but to us it’s the holy grail of space exploration.”

Yet this isn’t the whole story. There are those who would argue that SpaceX’s true holy grail is a far more fanciful idea than slashing prices on satellite deployment or supply missions to the ISS. Indeed, SpaceX’s commercial and federal work is largely a way of bankrolling research into the driving ambition that led Elon Musk to establish the company in the first place: his dream of colonising other planets.

It’s a dream that rests on the assumption that an evolutionary disaster of the type that eradicated the dinosaurs is a real threat, and one that needs to be insured against by establishing human outposts on habitable planets. It’s not some crank ulterior motive that SpaceX is trying to hide: the company has already signed up to facilitate a forthcoming unmanned NASA mission to Mars, the main aim of which is to explore the presence of macrobiotic life and – by association – its potential as a sustainable ‘stepping stone’ from Earth.

“The idea is that even if the odds are very small that something catastrophic could happen on this planet,” says Kirstin, “we should prepare for that instance. We’ve gone from single to multi-cellular life, from living in the water to living on land, but this is the first time in the history of human evolution that we’ve had the ability to live on other planets. And we need to take advantage of that before it’s too late.”

Elon Musk is just one of a number of billionaires seeking to push the progress of human evolution beyond Earth’s atmosphere, and in doing so secure their place in the history books for having made something other than money. Robert Bigelow, who amassed his fortune with a chain of budget hotels, has already launched two prototype space stations through Bigelow Aerospace, and has plans to put a working station in orbit as early as 2014. Jeff Bezoz, founder of Amazon, has his own more secretive space exploration company, Blue Origin, which operates a spartan website, boasts a bizarre symbolic crest and offers only occasional media insights into the development of its vertical launch and landing New Shepherd rocket program.

Amid the pantheon of gracefully greying, boyish billionaires – affectionately known as ‘thrillionaires’ – one voice is, as usual, more vocal than most. In 2004 Richard Branson bought the design of SpaceShipOne, winner of the privately funded Ansari X Prize, which aimed to speed up technological developments by offering $10 million to anyone successfully launching a craft into suborbital space and recovering it twice in two weeks. SpaceShipOne was designed by engineer Burt Ratan and funded (to the tune of considerably more than the prize pot) by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, and comprised of a small craft that detached from its White Knight mothership at an altitude of around 50,000ft (15.42km), before igniting its rocket and powering up to around 150,000ft (45.7km).

Virgin Galactic's suborbital craft flying over the Mojave Space Port, from where the company will operate

The space tourism arm of Branson’s empire – neatly named Virgin Galactic – is set to employ a six-passenger, two-crew member variation called SpaceShipTwo, also designed by Ratan, operating 3.5-hour flights from lift-off to landing (of which only a fraction is suborbital, and barely six-minutes weightless) from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. Sceptics draw attention to the environmental impact of regular rocket flights, not to mention the inherent dangers – the latter highlighted in 2007 when an explosion during ground testing killed three engineers – but nothing seems capable of stemming the tide of people pre-booking $200,000 flights with $20,000 deposits.

It might sound like a lot of money, but it’s a snip compared to what civilians have paid in the past for the privilege of seeing the Earth from space. In 2001, American engineer Dennis Tito paid $20 million to spend seven days at the ISS; he was followed by South African software mogul Mark Shuttleworth in 2002 and US entrepreneur Greg Olsen in 2004. Virgin Galactic, by comparison, has dreams of one day offering a significantly cheaper service to the general public, but BBC science correspondent Martin Redfern remains dubious of it ever becoming a truly democratic way to travel.

“It’s always going to take a huge amount of energy to get somebody into space,” he says. “I imagine the cost will come down eventually – you might knock a zero off the price tag in 20 years time, but it’s still going to be comparable to the most expensive luxury round-the-world cruise you can imagine. I don’t think Rynanair will be running them.”

Nor, as Redfern points out, should potential customers lose sight of the fact that what they’re buying is still only a suborbital flight – a stunning view of the Earth and a wonderful rush of weightlessness, but a short and bone-rattling experience that remains a long way from the fantastic voyages of science fiction. If anything, suborbital space tourism is a glorified exploration of Earth’s immediate atmosphere rather than a space odyssey in the conventional sense. And that’s largely in keeping with the current shift in how we as humans ‘use’ space, which is now seen less as Vonnegut’s vacuum of ‘meaningless without end’ and more as a near-Earth resource richer than any oil field, teeming with satellites that control everything from televisions and credit card transactions to phones, farms and weapons of modern warfare.

“The shift has been from exploring space for space’s sake to using space for achieving X, Y or Z,” says Ben Baseley-Walker, one of a new generation of ‘space lawyers’ and head of a global stability program at the UN. “We’re standing at the end of the era of romanticising space exploration, and we’re talking about the application of space, about how best to use it for our various ends. And as more and more nations get involved – over 60 states now operate their own satellite systems, and more than 190 countries rely on space services in some way – the more important it becomes to make sure that their aims are likely to create a secure space environment for the long term.”

The likes of Baseley-Walker have been instrumental in championing the emerging field of space regulation – defining the legal responsibilities surrounding everything from the creation of space debris to the weaponisation of space, all issues with huge potential importance in mitigating future disasters, but which seem to take us ever further from the heroics of the golden age of space travel. To which end, it seems, the Economist may have had a point: inner space, it claimed, was useful; outer space was history.

Or perhaps not. Because even in the comparatively workmanlike task of taking tourists into suborbital space on Virgin Galactic flights, the brilliant engineers and boyish billionaires who themselves grew up with noses pressed to their black and white television screens hope to reignite dreams of space travel in a new generation of potential astronauts, putting mankind’s post-Earth evolution back on track, and the hunger for exploring other worlds back in its heart.

“We stand a very big chance of losing our ability to inspire our youth,” said an impassioned Burt Ratan at the TED talks in 2007. “I feel very strongly that it’s not good enough for us to have generations of kids that think it’s okay to look forward to a better version of a cellphone with a video in it. They need to look forward to exploration. They need to look forward to colonisation. They need to look forward to breakthroughs. We need to inspire them, because they need to lead us and help us survive in the future.”