5 April 2019

Space is a bad place to put your billions


Fifty years ago, in June, the last space race came to end. As much a political project as a technological one, it ranks for many people among mankind’s greatest achievements.

The scale of that success has perhaps been lost by a combination of time and repetition. Once the highest mountain has been climbed the best climbers have an identity crisis.

There has quite literally been nowhere else to go. NASA has done little more than dip a toe into the stratosphere in the last few decades. The odd drone fired at Saturn, a space station, some flashy new satellites, but although impressive, you might say that they are not quite rocket science.

But now, another race has begun. The only difference is that nobody knows where the finish line is.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX is the world’s biggest private space company. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has his own programme too, as does Richard Branson of Virgin.

The money pumped into these projects is extraordinary. NASA has spent over $600 billion, not counting inflation, since its inception. SpaceX started a funding round last year to raise $500 million building a valuation of around $30 billion and making it look like an extremely valuable company. To send a rocket into space privately now costs approximately $60 million, a huge decrease from the $500 million to $2 billion required for NASA’s calamitous SLS rocket.

The difference in the source of the funding is important because it illustrates the difference in the aims and restrictions placed on the projects. Typically, government funding is for the sake of a public interest. NASA’s budget, for example, is for scientific research. But when it comes to billionaires funding their interests, there is no accountability to taxpayers and critically, very little accountability to the market.

Mars colonisation is a fun idea, made even more so by pictures and computer-generated models on the SpaceX website. It is undoubtedly exciting, but it often feels like we have been spellbound for so long by promises of sky-walking made by Hollywood that we have forgotten the arguments.

Advocates of the idea say that we must have a backup planet. This is in case of nuclear war or when the climate finally kills us.

But Mars is no Garden of Eden. It is a very, very cold desert that, as far as we know, has always been devoid of any life of any kind. Its atmosphere, which is 95 per cent carbon dioxide, also sounds like a strange green alternative.

Whether or not it is possible to get to Mars is hardly the beginning. Living there permanently would require the most enormous amount of technology and resources that, if theoretically possible to gather, would require twice that theorising again to consider breathing life into the red planet.

The reason why overcoming these hurdles is hard to picture is because treading the cosmos is on all counts a bad investment. The risks, the difficulty, the expense that would involve shipping men to Mars quickly clogs the passion that drives it forward.

If this wasn’t the case, the market would react.

Space tourism, a concept that is frequently touted as the first or the next phase on the journey to Mars is unlikely to achieve more than a slight profit and will become little more than a rich man’s treat. Commercial space flights may be a thing for a while, but however short it might make the journey from London to Melbourne, the coma-inducing G-forces and high possibility of death on re-entry may deter prospective clients. Besides, other innovations and investment into satellite tech are making international travel less necessary now than ever before. So, hardly world-changing stuff. If it does work, it will likely become something of a Concorde.

In an interview with Space News, Jeff Bezos talks about his aim to do what he describes as the ‘heavy lifting’ for space exploration. It is an interesting point. There is a gulf between technological capabilities and an idea that propels it, but if that gap can be closed, it could provide a platform for innovation in a field that cannot currently be occupied by a young tech entrepreneur in a shed. These jumps typically happen suddenly and can have a transformative effect on many sectors, like the invention of the telephone or the aeroplane. Once one big step has been taken, many smaller ones can follow. Bezos is also sensible enough to admit that a Mars colony is a bad idea, his focus being on reducing the cost of launching rockets rather than sci–fi.

But innovation still needs potential profitability and a risk that outside people are willing to bet money on as well as creativity, passion and ideas if it is to be successful. If people don’t risk their cash, the likelihood of success in such supermassive projects is vastly diminished. At the moment, rocket science still cannot provide this opportunity.

For example, the high valuation of SpaceX is based on a fleet of satellites with the potential to improve data services around the globe. Morgan Stanley estimates that these projects will make up to 70 per cent of profits, but is pretty cagey about where other opportunities might come from.

The other great expedition of the 20th century, Scott and Amundson’s race to the South Pole, was entirely scientific. Nobody has ever had any plans about seriously living in the worst place in the world. Antarctica is, if you like, colonised by scientists, but it isn’t self-sustaining and relies entirely on resources shipped from places you can live in. The South Pole is thousands of times easier to inhabit than Mars.

Science deserves funding as end in itself. Profit-making ventures do not have this luxury.

It is hard to imagine any sort of damage to our planet that could possibly make it less hospitable than Mars, but that is what is required if serious money is to make colonisation plausible. Otherwise, there would need to be a rare and valuable resource worth going for. Until either of these pictures emerge, there is little future in private space exploration.

Having said this, I do not think that we have seen the end of the extraordinary creativity unleashed by these companies. There will be many more rockets, many records smashed and many more breath-taking moments, but they will not change the world or make a new one. Tech innovation needs to fulfil an immediate human purpose and space innovation is the billionaire’s dream that only enters your head when you have run out of sensible ones.

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William Hirst is an intern at CapX