Special Report

Bezos, Bigelow, Branson and Musk

Can billionaires save the space program?

SpaceX took a step toward launcher reusability in December 2015 with the return of the Falcon 9 first stage to a landing site in Florida. (SpaceX)
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This may finally be the year that “New Space” starts delivering on some old promises. If schedules hold (and how many times have we heard that?) 2016 will see resumed testing of Virgin Galactic’s suborbital tourist vehicle, the launch of Bigelow Aerospace’s inflatable module to the space station, and the debut of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy as the most powerful rocket in the world.

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic hopes to roll out a second copy of its SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle in February and return to flight testing for the first time since an October 2014 accident claimed the life of one pilot and seriously injured another. If the company has run into any major development problems with its spaceplane, it hasn’t admitted to them (commercial space ventures don’t have to be as transparent as NASA does), although the fuel for SpaceShipTwo’s hybrid propulsion system was changed from a rubber-like compound called HTPB in 2014, then changed back again last year. Branson et al. continue to assure Virgin Galactic reservation-holders, and New Mexico officials who funded a new (and so far mostly unused) spaceport, that tourist flights will happen. They’ve just stopped predicting exactly when.

Hotelier Robert Bigelow aspires to someday be the first orbital real estate mogul, renting out inflatable habitat modules for use as research labs and living quarters. For starters, he has built (with NASA funding) a mini-module called BEAM (Bigelow Expandable Activity Module) that will launch to the space station in February, in a two-year test of inflatable module technology.

Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, meanwhile, will continue their quest to revolutionize space transportation in 2016. Following the successful upright landing of Blue Origin’s “New Shepard” suborbital vehicle in November, Bezos’ company plans to start taking research payloads to near-space this year, as a precursor to carrying passengers. The New Shepard capsule is designed for brief, up-and-down suborbital trips, but Blue Origin is also working on a new engine for orbital rockets, called the BE-4, and is setting up its own operation at Cape Canaveral with an eye toward starting orbital launches “later this decade,” according to Bezos. After years of secrecy, the Amazon founder’s plans for space are now more out in the open.

Musk’s SpaceX, the clear leader in the commercial space arena, also scored a major success in December when the first stage of a Falcon 9 rocket returned to its launch site intact, instead of dropping into the ocean. Full reusability will come years down the road, says Musk, if the company can reliably recover these spent rocket stages, refurbish them without too much labor, and do it again, launch after launch, year after year. That this may not be easy was underscored by a third straight failure, less than a month later, to land a returning first stage on an ocean platform (required for some launches). But December’s feat was an important step in making SpaceX’s rockets—already cheaper than the competition’s—even more affordable. Musk guesstimates that 70 percent of the first stages will return successfully this year, improving to 90 percent next year.

In April, the company plans to introduce a larger rocket, the Falcon Heavy, capable of lifting 53 tons of cargo, more than any other launcher currently in use. Combined with its Dragon vehicle—which by year’s end should be able to carry people as well as cargo—SpaceX has effectively created its own independent space program from the ground up, using 21st-century tools and methods, and largely free of the politics and entrenched practices that can make NASA’s traditional contractors seem inefficient by comparison.

Looking at the names above, it’s easy to see the common thread: All are billionaires. Nor are these the only plutocrats making their mark on space exploration. Russian tech investor Yuri Milner is funding a major new push in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Donations from American businessman Sheldon Adelson helped the Israeli SpaceIL team reserve a rocket ride so that it can compete for the Google Lunar X-Prize. And Planetary Resources—who plan perhaps the most ambitious commercial space project of all, to mine asteroids—counts Google executives among its investors.

What is it about Internet tycoons and the space program? Vanderbilt, Morgan, and other moguls of the Gilded Age made their fortunes in the transportation business, then built libraries (the 19th-century Internet) with the profits. Now it’s the other way around. The entrepreneurs behind Paypal, Amazon, and other online companies are investing in rockets. And without them, the space program of 2016 would be far less interesting.

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