The race for space

Major players and corporations are competing to colonize the moon, send civilians into space, or be the first to land a spaceship on the surface of Mars. What does this mean for the future of space? Tim Fernholz, a reporter for Quartz and author of Rocket Billionaires joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the future of space travel.

TRANSCRIPT

Major players and corporations are competing to colonize the Moon, send civilians into space or be the first to land a spaceship on the surface of Mars.

What does this mean for the future of space?

Tim Fernholz, a reporter for and author of 'Rocket Billionaires,' joins us to discuss the future of space travel.

So the title of the book, 'Rocket Billionaires.'

We heard about Jeff Bezos.

We've heard about Elon Musk.

You know, for a while, there was Virgin Galactic...

It's still there.

...with Dave Geffen, right?

So what are all these guys doing?

What do they want to do?

I think they want to change the world.

It's different for each one of them.

Elon Musk's vision is of a multi-planetary future for human civilization.

We would colonize Mars so there's redundancy.

Jeff Bezos subscribes to an idea of moving industry and humanity to space stations off planet to protect the Earth.

Richard Branson, who owns and operates Virgin Galactic, is more of a Earth-focused space company.

They want to fly people, ultimately, around the world from city to city in sub-orbital space planes.

You know, they have all benefited from the industry that they are disrupting, which is, kind of, NASA, right?

Absolutely.

I mean, there was all that, decades of rocket science, which is hard, that had to get them to a place where they could build on it.

It's absolutely the case, but the industry they're disrupting isn't NASA.

You know, NASA is a government space agency.

They are disrupting the Boeings and Lockheed Martins and the Northrop Grummans of the world, who are primarily government contractors.

And what is exciting and new right now is technology has advanced to the point where it's cheap enough...

Mm-hmm.

...and inequality has driven us to the point where individuals have enough money that they can bring private competition into the space industry.

And the ultimate hope is we'll find a way to make economic value in orbit around the Moon, on Mars, and that is what will bring people to space.

Are there any guidelines?

If you had a billion dollars or $10 billion, could you just start a space company?

You sure could, and a lot of people have tried, and a lot of people have lost a lot of money doing that because, as you say, it is very hard.

But what you're really asking is, 'Can these guys do anything they want without the public say-so?'

Yeah.

And the answer right now is, 'No.'

They are dependent, often, on NASA for know-how, for funding.

Elon Musk is the most successful of these entrepreneurs with SpaceX.

Mm-hmm.

That is a company that would not exist without NASA's help.

And they're dependent on launching their rockets from, you know, US Air Force launch sites.

What is true is there's not very much regulation right now.

The laws that govern space were designed at a time when only a nation-state could get to space.

Right.

And now, Elon Musk just sent a Tesla into solar orbit, which is crazy, and people are starting to take another look at these laws, and under the Trump administration, we're seeing a big move to ease regulations and make it simpler for private companies to launch more stuff into space and do more in space.

Is there a tension then between the existing government subcontractors or contractors that have had their run of the place and these upstarts that are showing up and possibly eating their lunch, saying, 'Hey, you know what?

If I can send a satellite up for a lot cheaper and a lot faster, look out'?

There's a ton of tension there, and they are literally eating their lunch.

There's a company right now called United Launch Alliance.

It's a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, and for almost a decade, they had a monopoly on US government rocket launches, charged upwards of $150 million per launch.

SpaceX came along with a rocket that costs about half that much.

They had to sue the US Air Force to win the right to bid on those contracts and break that monopoly.

That's how disruptive they were.

These are private companies really with one big investor each, and that gives them a lot of freedom that these companies who are dependent on Congress don't have.

Bezos and Musk have very different strategies and world views on how to get things done, too.

Absolutely.

You know, I think Elon Musk is a brilliant engineer.

He doesn't take 'no' for an answer.

He's very driven, and he is a little bit impulsive, and he gets seized by the big idea and runs for something.

But what's interesting about his company is that it's really designed to bootstrap itself.

You know, when he got started, he was a very wealthy man by our standards...

Sure.

...but he couldn't run a space program.

So he's broken into markets doing work for NASA, doing work for commercial satellite companies that's allowed his company to grow, and that discipline makes them really successful right now.

They launched 18 rockets last year.

They might launch 30 this year.

Jeff Bezos has a lot more money than Elon Musk.

He's the richest man in the world, I think.

I haven't checked the stock market today.

Yeah, yeah.

And his company is all along the long view.

They're not worried about revenue from other, you know, sources.

They're building their own technology, and only last year did they announce, 'Oh, we're going to have a rocket. We're going to sell,' you know, 'flights to satellite companies.'

Mm-hmm.

They are really focused on developing their own thing, their own vision.

What's the likelihood... Five years out, ten years out, let's say both of these companies are successful.

How does space look different?

What SpaceX wants to do in the near term is launch a huge constellation of broadband Internet satellites and compete with telecoms and drive down the cost of Internet access.

It could change the way we communicate.

That would be huge.

Blue Origin ultimately wants to get in a similar business of launching satellites, but what both companies need to prove is, there's a market for either launching people into space as tourists where they can be self-sustaining, that extracting resources from the Moon or asteroids is something that will keep a business going, or even manufacturing new things in space like high-capacity fiber-optic lines that you can't do in Earth's gravity would justify their investments.

Mm-hmm.

And so that's the bet they're making, is that these new markets will emerge, and what is fascinating is, even though these are two very different men and two very different companies, they've both settled on the idea of 'We need to build reusable rockets in order to make this happen.'

And I think that's fascinating that that's the strategy and the technology problem they both want to solve.

All right.

Tim Furnholz of and the author of 'Rocket Billionaires.'

Thanks so much.

My pleasure.