The Space Barons by Christian Davenport, Public Affairs, 320pp, £18
On Friday April 13, 2029, according to Nasa’s apocalyptically named Planetary Defense Coordination Office, an asteroid the size of a football stadium will pass between Earth and the DirecTV orbiting satellite.
This is what counts as a terrifyingly near miss and so astronomers have dubbed the asteroid Apophis, the Greek name for an Egyptian sun god, a serpent known as the “Lord of Chaos”, who symbolised death and darkness. The last time a massive space rock hit the Earth, the dinosaurs were wiped out along with 75 per cent of all living species. No wonder astronomers say asteroids are nature’s way of saying: “How’s that space programme going?”
The answer was, until recently, not very well at all. Nearly half a century after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, the best we can boast is a space station in geostationary orbit, 240 miles above the surface of the Earth. “The same as an Amtrak commute between Washington DC and New York,” as the author Christian Davenport puts it rather dismissively.
Indeed, when the businessman Elon Musk logged on to the Nasa website a couple of decades ago, he was horrified to discover that America’s space agency had no plans to send astronauts to Mars.
Musk, who went on to found spacecraft manufacturer SpaceX, became preoccupied with what he calls an “eventual extinction event” and the need to find a way for mankind to find a safe haven elsewhere in the cosmos. He dismissed Venus because its atmosphere was too acidic, and Mercury as too close to the sun, before settling on the Red Planet. As Davenport tells us in his fascinating account of how some of the world’s richest men are becoming big players in the modern space race, Musk has gone on to become a major Nasa contractor, with a wide range of rockets and spacecraft.
The other three plutocrats involved are Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and Virgin Galactic boss Sir Richard Branson. Allen is currently working on developing the world’s biggest plane, a mid-air rocket launcher called the Stratolaunch. And Branson is working on a space tourism project, which suffered a disastrous setback four years ago when one of its SpaceShipTwo rocket planes crashed.
Davenport interviewed all four, but it is Musk and Bezos who come across as the men most likely to succeed. For a start they are both loaded. Musk has made billions from ventures as diverse as the online payment system PayPal and the electric car manufacturer Tesla, while Bezos is now the richest man that has ever lived, with a fortune of $112 billion thanks to his stake in Amazon.
While Musk’s grand plan to colonise Mars is the most headline-grabbing aspect of what Bezos calls “a golden age of space exploration”, the truth is that it is putting satellites into orbit that is every rocket manufacturer’s bread and butter. In getting a slice of this market they had to confront the military/industrial complex head on. The space business had long been dominated by Boeing and Lockheed Martin and, in 2005, they consolidated their position by creating the United Launch Alliance. Lawsuits ensued and disputes went all the way to the White House.
But, in the end, winning contracts from satellite owners comes down to reliability and price. In this context the Holy Grail is a reusable rocket. Given that 70 per cent of the cost of a launch is in the booster stage, if this element of the rocket, which houses its engines, could be brought back to Earth safely rather than being left to plunge into the ocean or burn up on re-entry, the economics of space flight could be revolutionised. SpaceX has now achieved this milestone.
Davenport characterises Bezos and Musk as very much tortoise and hare. While Musk is determined to populate Mars, Bezos focuses more broadly on “people in space”. The Amazon founder has distributed a secret plan to the leadership of Nasa, proposing that cargo flights to Shackleton Crater at the moon’s south pole could begin as early as 2020. Bezos had chosen the site because it offered near continuous sunlight to power any spacecraft’s solar panels, and it lay next to a source of water ice. This would not only provide a necessity for human existence but, broken down, could be a source of fuel.
Last year Musk went further. He said that SpaceX planned to fly two cargo missions to Mars by 2020, followed four years later by four more ships: two carrying about 100 passengers apiece, the others cargo-only. Over time the plan is that these early pioneers would be joined by many more. While it may sound fanciful, it is, in many ways, a noble quest. In his book The Problem of Pain, CS Lewis made the point that one of man’s obligations was to identify potential natural disasters and act prudently to avoid them. The person who builds on a fault line has no right to rail against God when his family is killed in an earthquake. In this context, perhaps the asteroid-fearing Musk is less bonkers than he might appear.