Elon Musk, SpaceX and the final commercial frontier

High-profile announcement obscures a lower-profile struggle being waged between the proponents of Old Space and New Space, as they have been called

In an undated handout image, a rendering of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket that may take people on a journey around the moon. SpaceX, the ambitious rocket company headed by Elon Musk, wants to send two tourists around the moon and back before the end of 2018. (SpaceX via The New York Times)

In an undated handout image, a rendering of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket that may take people on a journey around the moon. SpaceX, the ambitious rocket company headed by Elon Musk, wants to send two tourists around the moon and back before the end of 2018. (SpaceX via The New York Times)

 

We like to boast of our phenomenal technological accomplishments today. But it is sobering to recall that it has been 45 years since the last man walked on the Moon.

Those early Soviet and US space flights were awe-inspiring examples of human ingenuity and daring. The average car today has more computing power than was available to Nasa during those early Apollo missions.

The latest announcement by SpaceX that it will fly two (very rich) tourists around the moon within two years has stirred up a new flurry of interest in space exploration. What could be more thrilling than to view our planet from space? It is certainly the ultimate act of one-upmanship in the holiday selfie race.

SpaceX, founded in 2002 by the mercurial entrepreneur Elon Musk, has been a pioneer in space technology, shaking up a strangely inward-looking industry. But the company’s reputation for setting bold targets has been matched by its habit for missing deadlines.

The two passengers, who approached SpaceX with the idea for a private mission last year and have not yet been named, will blast off from the Kennedy Space Center’s historic Pad 39A near Cape Canaveral, the same launch pad used by the Apollo lunar missions.

If the mission is successful, the two passengers will travel further and faster into the solar system than anyone before. The circumlunar journey is expected to last a week and travel up to 400,000 miles into space.

Mr Musk said the cost of the flight would be “comparable” with that of sending astronauts to the International Space Station, currently about $70 million.

As well as being rich, the two passengers will have to be brave. The risks of space travel are considerable. In total, 18 cosmonauts and astronauts have died in space, a fatality rate of about 1.4 per cent per person-flight. “We’re doing everything we can to minimise the risk, but it’s not zero,” Mr Musk said.

SpaceX’s high-profile announcement obscures a lower-profile struggle being waged between the proponents of Old Space and New Space, as they have been called.

Supporters of Old Space suggest that organisations such as Nasa should stick to their original mission of deep space exploration and scientific discovery. In spite of cutbacks over the years, Nasa still employs about 17,000 people, has a budget of $19 billion and is supporting the SpaceX mission.

But, for the moment, it seems as though the advocates of New Space, which emphasises the commercial possibilities of space, are carrying the day, in the US at least.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, the Trump administration favours space projects that can attract widespread voter support and can realistically “be completed during Mr Trump’s current four-year presidential term”.

White House officials said the leaked memos cited in the WSJ report did not fully reflect the administration’s thinking.

But President Donald Trump and Mr Musk are natural business impresarios, who share an instinctive love of risk and the spectacular gesture. What bigger backdrop could there be than space?

FT Service

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