How “Iron Man” Musk is taking the lead in the new space race

Falcon Heavy launch © SpaceX
The SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket takes off from the Kennedy Space Centre

Tech entrepreneur Elon Musk has grandiose plans for humanity. It’s looking increasingly likely that he has the chutzpah – and cash – to succeed, says Chris Carter.

Welcome to the new space age. It didn’t so much creep up on us a couple of weeks ago, as blow the front door off its hinges. We are, of course, talking about entrepreneur Elon Musk’s very public test launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. Broadcast live online from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida (and still available to view at SpaceX.com), the warm-up show was presented by young, photogenic SpaceX staff, complete with a whooping audience – Nasa, this wasn’t.

Nor was it meant to be. This was Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX and electric-vehicle company Tesla, stamping his mark on the space sector, ushering in a new era of commercial space flight with all of the subtlety of a baton-twirling majorette.

At T minus one minute, vapour teasingly shrouded the Falcon Heavy space rocket as it was prepared for launch. The seconds ticked down to lift off. Then all of the 27 Merlin engines lit up and the 230-foot rocket shuddered into the sky. Within minutes, the two side boosters (cores), detached from the main fuselage, flipped around and returned to earth “like something out of Iron Man”, as Giles Whittell put it in The Times. Sometimes life does imitate art (actor Robert Downey Jr apparently turned to Musk for inspiration on how to play the armour-clad entrepreneur-turned-superhero).

Meanwhile, up in space, the main part of the rocket had detached from its central booster, which also fell back to earth. (Although, sadly, not to the drone ship – a floating pontoon –  it was supposed to land on. Instead, it ploughed into the Atlantic at around 300mph.) Then, out burst the rocket’s payload. This would usually be a concrete block in test flights.

Instead, out came Star Man – a mannequin wearing a SpaceX-branded space suit sitting at the wheel of Musk’s own car: a crimson Tesla Roadster. It was meant to be set on a trajectory that would see it shoot by Mars – a red car heading for the red planet, geddit? In fact, it’s heading for a distant asteroid belt, but you can’t win them all.

Symbolic space junk

Not that the overshoot matters. It was an impressive exercise in cross-promotional marketing rather than in delivering cars to Mars, even if it was yet another example of humans cluttering up a pristine frontier – as The Guardian felt compelled to remind us. Yet, the Tesla is so much more than space junk, notes Marina Koren in The Atlantic. It is a symbol: “just not the kind we’re used to because until only a few years ago the thought that a commercial company (not the government, not Nasa) would lay claim to the business of sending stuff into the solar system – well, it seemed nearly impossible”, says Koren.

That’s changing already. In its 2019 budget request last week, the US government proposed ending direct funding for the International Space Station after 2025. Instead, it would provide $150m to support a take over by the commercial sector – in effect, privatising the space station. You can see why they would do that.

Space travel may be glorious in the annals of history, but as the European Space Agency’s general director, Professor Johann-Dietrich Wörner, told The Daily Telegraph: “taxpayer-funded agencies must make the people who pay us happy… They would not pay us anything to send an electric car into space.”

Masters of the universe

This explains why, in 2013, when staff were keen to take SpaceX public, Musk refused, noting that profit-fixated shareholders wouldn’t accept what they were trying do to. “Creating the technology to establish life on Mars is and always has been the fundamental goal. If being a public company diminishes that likelihood, then we should not do so until Mars is secure,” he explained.

This is not to say that the US government is turning its back on space. In its latest national defence strategy, released last month, the Pentagon described space as a battlefield for the first time. “China and Russia have been quick to adapt space as a war-fighting domain, and are developing counter-space capabilities with the specific intent of denying, disrupting and degrading our space systems,” said General John Hyten, who heads up the military’s answer to Nasa, US Strategic Command.

With that in mind, arms manufacturer Lockheed Martin teamed up with Boeing for a joint venture, the United Launch Alliance (ULA), in 2006. But each launch of its Delta IV Heavy rocket is expensive, costing $350m to $400m, space industry analyst Bill Ostrove told news site Mashable.

What made SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launch remarkable was that it came in at just $90m, making it the best-value heavy-lift option now available. Russian and Chinese rivals can launch for roughly the same cost, notes Ostrove, but “offer significantly less lift capacity. So in that sense, [the Falcon Heavy] will have a greater effect on the market.”

A helping hand from the government

“The Space Council must see the new reality,” said Republican grandee Newt Gingrich on Fox News, of the organisation resurrected by President Donald Trump last summer to formulate space policy. “Companies like SpaceX are out-competing government rocket programmes. This trend is likely to continue. Instead of focusing our tax dollars on duplicative efforts, the federal government’s interaction with the space industry must change. We should help these companies achieve more. That will be music to Musk’s ears.

Of course, not everyone is happy with the idea of handing over the future of space exploration to unelected tech billionaires. “Our technological masters enjoy more power and influence over humanity than ever – with relatively little scrutiny,” says Anjana Ahuja in the Financial Times. “The question of whether our species colonises another planet – one of the most significant decisions that humankind will ever make – seems more likely today to depend on the whim of an entrepreneur, possibly Mr Musk, than any president.”

Or perhaps it will be Jeff Bezos. The Amazon founder has his own space company, Blue Origin. Last June, its New Shepard rocket blasted into suborbital space then returned to earth in a textbook vertical landing long before SpaceX had achieved the feat. Blue Origin is also working on a heavy-lift rocket, called New Glenn. This is comparable to the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, if not quite as powerful in terms of the loads it can carry.

“Musk’s style is to brag about things and then do them,” John Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University and founder of the Space Policy Institute, told Alan Yuhas in The Guardian. “Bezos’ style is to do things and then brag about them.” But with a personal fortune of $104bn to Musk’s not inconsiderable $21bn, Bezos can afford to keep spending for longer.

A long weekend in space

Richard Branson is the third contender worth mentioning, although Virgin Galactic, the space company he founded in 2004, is focused on taking tourists into space rather than delivering heavy payloads. Nor does it rely on rockets. Instead, a custom-made aeroplane called WhiteKnightTwo carries a smaller space plane, SpaceShipTwo, to 50,000 feet. At that altitude, the space plane is released to fire up its own hybrid rocket motor, and the SpaceShipTwo enters a near-vertical climb into space. Then the engine is turned off, the tourists take their photos, and the wings of the space plane are positioned for re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Virgin Galactic suffered a setback in October 2014 when, during the first powered test flight of SpaceShipTwo, the plane broke up over the Mojave Desert in California, killing one of the two pilots.

It took two years for the company to regain approval from the US Federal Aviation Administration to fly SpaceShipTwo again. Still, that hasn’t stopped more than 700 would-be space tourists – actor Brad Pitt and singer Katy Perry said to be among them – from paying $250,000 to reserve a seat aboard one of the first scheduled flights into space. In January, Virgin Galactic completed a successful glide test of the SpaceShipTwo space plane, VSS Unity, and Branson hopes to see off the first passengers this year.

Talking to CNN last week, Branson admitted that the “extraordinary” launch of Musk’s Falcon Heavy left him feeling “a little bit jealous” and wondering what Virgin Galactic could do to upstage it. “I hope Virgin Galactic will be the first of the three entrepreneurs fighting to put people into space to get there,” he added.

With Musk’s SpaceX and Bezos’ Blue Origin also planning manned space flights this year, we may well see a winner in the coming months. “We want a new space race. Space races are exciting,” said Musk, who was exuberant after the Falcon Heavy launch. It looks like he’s got one.