WALTER ISAACSON: It’s not such an unusual sight anymore. A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket set to launch on a resupply mission to the International Space Station. It’s another day at the office for the private space industry, or new space, as it’s come to be called.
During the first five years of the century, private spending in space was pegged at $186 million. A decade later, it had risen to $2.3 billion.
That rapid ascent, oddly enough, can be traced directly back to a meeting of business leaders in St. Louis more than 90 years ago.
The end of World War I marked the end of a period of massive growth in aviation, when a river of government money had funded new planes, airstrips, technologies, and thousands of aviation specialists. And with the end of the war also came and end to all that spending, sending the aviation industry into an innovation holding pattern.
Enter Raymond Orteig . He had started out as a busboy, and just a few decades later, he had risen to become one of the world’s wealthiest hotel owners. Inspired by the early French aviators toured America, Orteig announced a cash prize of $25,000 to the first aviator of any Allied country who could cross the Atlantic from New York to Paris.
After a successful transatlantic flight aboard the Spirit of St. Louis, Orteig awarded Charles Augustus Lindbergh his prize money. It was a triumph that reignited the aviation industry. Within a year, the number of pilots in the US tripled, the number of planes quadrupled, and the number of airline passengers increased 30-fold.
By 1996, as space travel and exploration suffered a post Cold War lag, Peter Diamandis, an engineer an entrepreneur, was given a copy of the book, Spirit of St. Louis. Inspired by what he had done for aviation, Diamandis initiated the XPRIZE, later renamed the Ansari XPRIZE. It promised $10 million to the first non-government organization to launch a human in a reusable spacecraft twice within two weeks.
Eight years later, the privately backed SpaceShipOne took the prize, but not before teams from seven countries invested $100 million in new aerospace technologies. And just as the Orteig prize prompted the growth of private sector aviation, the Ansari prize helped inspire the best and brightest of Silicon Valley to shift their gaze upward. The final frontier was about to change forever.
I’m Walter Isaacson, and this is Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies.
– We checked all four systems and they are keen with a go.
– 10, 9–
– Tranquility base here. The eagle has landed.
– Six, five, four–
– That’s one small step for man–
– Two, one–
– One giant leap for mankind.
– Lift off. We have a lift off.
– Falcon in start up. T-minus 30 seconds.
WALTER ISAACSON: It must be counter-intuitive thousands of employees of SpaceX to ever stop what they’re doing. Relentless forward motion is part of the cultural DNA.
– T-minus 15. Stand by for terminal count.
WALTER ISAACSON: But for the launch of a Falcon 9 rocket, or more recently, Falcon Heavy, they’ll gladly make an exception.
Historically speaking, it wasn’t so long ago that a launch like this would involve hundreds of self-proclaimed steely eyed missile launchers.
WALTER ISAACSON: But this launch is different.
– Lift off. Go Falcon Heavy.
WALTER ISAACSON: This team is dominated by millennials. Likelier to be veterans of Stanford and MIT than of World War II and Korea.
They are stirred not by the lofty prose of John F Kennedy, but by the relentless vision of Elon Musk. The initial age of space exploration is over. The age of space commerce has begun. And with it, a new chapter in a story that began centuries ago with the first rockets.
There’s nothing quite like war to drive technology forward. And rocket science is no exception. It was about eight centuries ago that the Chinese soldiers first unleashed what they called flying fire lantern against the Mongols, who were besieging the city of Kaifeng-Fu.
This spear-like weapon had a small pyrotechnic device attached to it. And it was used to throw an opponent off their game at the start of a battle. Over the centuries, the idea of rockets as weapons fell in and out of favor. But the Kitty Hawk moment in modern rocket science was far removed from any battleground.
It happened here in Auburn, Massachusetts, on March 16, 1926. Borrowing a stretch of pasture at his Aunt Effie’s farm, physics scholar Robert C Goddard successfully launched the first ever liquid fueled rocket. The response was–
Underwhelming. Few in the non-bovine world seemed to care that Goddard effectively invented the modern rocket. Like so many trailblazers before and since, Robert Goddard was roundly ridiculed. The laughing though, would come to an abrupt stop a decade and a half later.
– Captured film from Nazi Germany reveals further secrets of the V-2 rocket that blasted England and terrorized her civilians.
WALTER ISAACSON: In 1944, building on Robert Goddard’s work, Germany’s V-1 and V-2 rockets rained down on France and England. Shortly after the war, a modified V-2 would be the first known craft to reach space. And then in 1957–
– Today, a new moon is in the sky. A 23-inch metal sphere placed in orbit by a Russian rocket.
WALTER ISAACSON: With the Cold War in full swing, Russia took the first step in the space race with the launch of Sputnik. That was followed by a series of other Russian firsts, including the first human in space in April, 1961, Yuri Gagarin.
– 2, 1. lift off.
– All right, there. Lift off, and the clock is starting.
WALTER ISAACSON: Less than a month later, NASA launched Alan Shepard aboard Freedom 7. Early in the next year–
– Godspeed, John Glenn.
WALTER ISAACSON: It put John Glenn into orbit. And later that year, President John F Kennedy pledged to land an American on the moon by the end of the decade.
JOHN F KENNEDY: I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.
WALTER ISAACSON: With that, countless thousands of the best and brightest mobilized to do the impossible as a world lived through every triumph and every tragedy.
– Apollo Astronauts Roger Chaffee, Edward White, and Gus Grissom lose their lives in a tragic flash fire aboard the grounded space capsule.
– A Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you, all of you on the good earth.
– That’s one small step for man–
– Houston, we have a problem.
– I was strolling on the moon one day.
– Boy, is this a neat way to travel.
– Ain’t it great?
WALTER ISAACSON: Andrew Chaikin is a space historian and author of the book, A Man on the Moon– The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts.
ANDREW CHAIKIN: I often say that Apollo was a proxy for a shooting war. Thank god it was because instead of fighting World War III to battle out the Cold War with the Soviet Union, we went to the moon.
WALTER ISAACSON: By the mid ’80s, public interest in space was on the wane.
– Challenger, go at throttle up.
– Roger, go at throttle up.
WALTER ISAACSON: Then disaster.
– We have a report from the flight dynamics officer that the vehicle has exploded.
WALTER ISAACSON: 73 seconds into its flight, the space shuttle Challenger fell apart, killing all seven astronauts on board. Then in 1991, the Soviet Union fell, a move that ended decades of Cold War. Through the combination of both of these events, a palpable drop in political will to fund space travel began to take form. It was about this time that Peter Diamandis read the Spirit of St. Louis, and conceived the idea for the XPRIZE.
And among the potential prize contenders, Ky Michaelson, the first civilian in the world to actually put a rocket into space.
KY MICHAELSON: I have no formal training when it comes to rocketry. I guess my formal training started when I was young boy, about 13, when I got my first chemistry set. And back then, it wasn’t disappearing ink and things like that. It was a thing called black powder. It taught you how to make it. And consequently, that went for firecrackers to bombs to rockets. And I guess I’ve been building rockets ever since that day.
WALTER ISAACSON: Michaelson would eventually earn himself the nickname Rocket Man. A name he earned despite the odds that were stacked against him.
KY MICHAELSON: When I was young, I was called stupid because of my dyslexia. See, I couldn’t learn when I was in school. That teachers could not teach me when I was in school. And they didn’t understand it. I didn’t understand. So I dropped out of school early– at a very early age– and went on in my life.
WALTER ISAACSON: This is Nevada’s Black Rock Desert on May 17, 2004, where Michaelson became the first of the year to launch a rocket into space. It was 21 feet tall and 10 inches in diameter.
Though the engineering and physics were complicated enough, what Michaelson didn’t see coming was the bureaucracy.
KY MICHAELSON: Well, I found out that it is a federal offense to launch a rocket into space. I mean, we’re talking a $250,000 fine and five years in prison if you don’t have the proper license to be able to do that. And so we had already done our environmental impact study. We had the insurance in place. All the paperwork was all in place. And I called up on Friday for a gentleman, and I asked him, where’s my license. And he says, I don’t know.
Well, I really went off on him that day. And you know, I’m a prominent American, I’ll tell you. What’s wrong with an American being the first civilian to launch a rocket in space? Unlike what happened with Sputnik, and Russia, and a number of other countries that beat us to the punch. I said, what’s wrong with an American doing that? And I mean, I really flew off on that guy, and hung up the phone.
And I just figured, you know, if I don’t get my license, I don’t care. When I leave this door, I may not be back for five years, I may lose everything I’ve got, but I am going to push that button.
WALTER ISAACSON: Push it he did. Just hours prior to launch, the license arrived, the countdown commenced, and the rocket ignited.
KY MICHAELSON: I couldn’t believe it. It didn’t blow up. And that thing was just out of there. I mean, I’ve never seen anything accelerate as fast as that. Well, at this point, we’re all jumping up and down, we’re all going crazy, and all that. But now, is it going to make it in the space. And we heard the sound– it went boom, boom.
Aw man, that’s the booster and the payload hitting the ground. And we had this antenna that we are tracking with it– GPS we were tracking it with. And the guy raised the antenna, no Ky, there’s something still up in the air. I said, you’re kidding, that’s got to be under parachute. Yeah, it’s traveling slow. I said, oh my god, it’s coming back from space.
WALTER ISAACSON: Michelson’s blast off, however, did not win him the XPRIZE. The logistics were too complicated for him to attempt another launch. The prize would eventually be claimed by the Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen, and aerospace engineer, Burt Rutan, who successfully completed the challenge in their craft, SpaceShipOne.
Meanwhile, another giant leap in new space was about to take place. It was a journey that would begin with an extraordinary meeting in Moscow.
It was no ordinary business trip. After all, its purpose was to negotiate the purchase of a rocket from the Russians.
But then these were no ordinary businessmen. One was South African born Elon Musk. Another was Jim Cantrell, engineer, entrepreneur, and more recently, founder and CEO of Vector Space Systems. He recalls the first time Musk pitched him on a privately backed mission to Mars.
JIM CANTRELL: Elon, apparently, had talked to somebody early on at the Mars Society about an idea he had, which was to launch mice to Mars. He had to show that humanity could become multi-planetary. And they recommended they talk to me because I was the guy that knew how to get cheap Russian rockets that you could buy for several million dollars to launch his mice.
WALTER ISAACSON: And where exactly in Russia does one go shopping for a cheap rocket?
JIM CANTRELL: Well, so the first one we went into was Russian city. And we pulled up. It was winter, of course. Everything’s always winter in Moscow. And we pulled up to the big gates, and these are like insane asylums, where you’ve got this huge wall that’s about 15 foot tall. And you know, razor wire on the top. And you’ve got a big steel gate. And they’re coming from the inside, and they’re wearing an ushanka hat, and a big overcoat. Because it’s just as cold inside as it is out.
And you walk down the hallways, and it’s dark, because light bulbs are expensive. And you know there’s all these doors in this long hallway we’re walking down. And Elon looked over at me, and he said at one point, he goes, is this an insane asylum? All the doors are padded. And the thing you had to understand about Russia was that they would pad the doors of the important people with vinyl. But it did look kind of like an insane asylum.
WALTER ISAACSON: After some tea, sandwiches, and small talk, both sides settled into their meeting.
JIM CANTRELL: And so as Elon was explaining his desire to make humanity a multi planetary species, I’m translating, and I could see this guy getting agitated. And he’s missing some teeth and so on. And not in the best of shape. And finally, he starts yelling, and he said something to the effect of, this is bullshit. Yeah he spit on Elon and he spit on our shoes. And Elon looked at me and he goes, did he just spit on us? I said, yeah, I think that’s a sign of disrespect.
So I thanked the guy for his time. And he basically said, no, we’re not going to sell our beautiful machines to somebody like you. You’re not even real.
WALTER ISAACSON: The next meeting at the headquarters of Kosmotras provoked more scatological criticism.
JIM CANTRELL: We tried to negotiate with these guys. We knew they’d sold these rockets– two for $6 million. And they wanted 8 each. So between Elon arguing with them and so forth, one of the guys– I called him the blue eyed Colonel– stood up, and he said, little boy, we are not going to sell you this rocket. This and your internet money are bullshit.
WALTER ISAACSON: In the wake of his less than successful trip to Moscow, Elon Musk made up his mind. His company, since named SpaceX, would design and manufacture its own rocket. And it would do so in a way that would redefine how the world thought of innovations in space aeronautics. Space historian Andy Chaikin.
ANDREW CHAIKIN: SpaceX has tried to do things very differently. They sat down with a blank sheet of paper and they said, OK, how can we, instead of optimizing for high performance, like the shuttle was more of a Ferrari, they wanted to build more of a Honda Civic, or a Toyota pickup truck. That kind of thing. Something you really could operate on a very frequent basis, and reduce the cost of that.
So they said, how can we do that. Well, you basically want to be as simple as you can. And by doing that, by maximizing simplicity, you also reduce cost and you increase reliability.
WALTER ISAACSON: This thinking permeates the growing field of new space players, including Blue Horizon, which was founded by Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos.
As Jim Cantrell explains, private firms such as SpaceX are delivering values in ways not possible under the old NASA model.
JIM CANTRELL: For a sum total of about $700 million, NASA got both the Falcon 9 and Dragon Capsule, which is capable of transporting crew, and also supplies to the space station. Meanwhile NASA had something called Constellation, that they have spent to date somewhere north of $50 billion. And they barely got one rocket and one capsule into orbit. So we’re looking at tens or hundreds of times less capital expenditure by a commercial company. So this has been a huge success.
WALTER ISAACSON: Chris Hadfield has a slightly different perspective. He’s a former astronaut and commander of the International Space Station, which circled the earth more than 2,600 times.
CHRIS HADFIELD: The more shareholders you have, the less nimble you are. If you have to please and provide profit for your shareholders on an annual basis, that really ties your hands as to the amount of freedom you have to choose what to do with the money that’s in them. The beauty of what Elon has done, to a large degree, has gotten this far in life, and started and run all these other businesses with a minimum of shareholders. NASA has 350 million shareholders. Every American citizen is a shareholder of NASA. And so NASA has to do its best to please all of the population of the entire country, as well as being internationally bound to all the other countries it works with.
WALTER ISAACSON: The shift from public to private space ventures led to cultural and generational differences. Just ask Tom Markusic who has worked on both sides of the fence. Today, he’s CEO and founder of Firefly Aerospace. In 2004, he was a NASA engineer– that is, until it was sent on a life changing business trip.
TOM MARKUSIC: I was at NASA, and this is one of those junctures where things just happened. I got sent off to a remote Pacific island to go and see one of these crazy dotcom billionaires was doing was trying to launch a rocket into space. And that was Elon Musk and SpaceX. So I joined them out on an island to observe what they were doing.
And I realized that this was actually the new frontier of space, and that there was something fundamentally changing. So I literally went native on NASA at that point, and didn’t go back, and joined this new space movement.
WALTER ISAACSON: Tom Markusic found the culture at SpaceX to be different from NASA in almost every way. It brought private sector thinking into an industry that had, up until this point, been largely dominated by governmental organizations.
TOM MARKUSIC: The culture at SpaceX when I started there was very goal oriented, and it was associated with fulfilling the goals of this single individual, Elon Musk. So Elon provided the resources and the vision, and he hired a bunch of people that he trusted to do the right things to get to the goal. It was a very liberating environment in that he put a lot of trust in people, and the goals were very inspiring, and there was no bureaucracy whatsoever.
WALTER ISAACSON: While many new space businesses are less known to the public, a few are capturing the popular imagination with dreams of space tourism. In 1988, Richard Branson, whose knighthood was still a decade away, appeared on the British Saturday morning kid’s show, Going Live. During the show, he took a call from a young man, asking if Branson would ever like to go into space. It’s now baked into company legend that this Saturday morning phone call planted the idea for Virgin Galactic.
The company’s mission is to design and build proprietary ships to carry a new generation of space tourists on suborbital flights. But Branson’s customers wouldn’t be the first to buy a ticket to space. It was 2001 when American engineer and entrepreneur Dennis Tito paid a cool eight figures to spend a week in the International Space Station. He’s often described as the first space tourist, but that may be a bit of a misnomer.
Former astronaut Chris Hadfield.
CHRIS HADFIELD: It’s tourism, but two big caveats– number one, it cost $35 million, which is beyond the purview of most people. And two, you didn’t just show up and go. You know, when you get on an airliner, and the flight attendant stands up at the front, and he gives you that little two minute briefing in order to be a safe passenger– that little briefing takes about nine months to fly on a Soyuz.
So all of those wealthy billionaires, in order to fly in the Soyuz, had to give up nine months of their life just to be a safe passenger. So it’s tourism, but it’s tourism at its earliest. Sort of like Darwin was a tourist on the Beagle.
WALTER ISAACSON: Dennis Tito, the first of six to buy a ticket to space, paid $20 million for the privilege. Later, Cirque Du Soleil founder, a Guy Laliberte paid $40 million. For the latest generation of space tourists, private companies such as Virgin Galactic promised to trim the price to a mere $250,000. The craft they’re designing would reach an altitude of about 62 miles, just beyond the Karman line, which defines the boundary of space, and high enough for passengers to experience weightlessness.
However appealing it sounds, few see a viable commercial model for space tourism– at least for now. This, explains Chris Hadfield, follows a similar pattern.
CHRIS HADFIELD: When trains were first invented, they were immensely non-profitable. We’re somewhere along that process in spaceflight. We’re still in those early fledgling stages of trying to develop the technology to make it a viable, and sustainable, and safe enough activity that you could start to turn a profit. But we’re at the tipping point in not just exploring space as a non-profitable government venture, but in fact, using space both for scientific, but also for commercial return.
WALTER ISAACSON: Though space travel remains incredibly difficult and dangerous, the NASA era missions have given way to a new frontier of commercial possibilities previously unimagined, including some huge small ideas.
BOB TWIGGS: My name is Bob Twiggs, and I’m a professor at Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky.
WALTER ISAACSON: When Bob Twiggs wanted to motivate his students with a hands on satellite project, he knew he’d have to teach them to think small.
BOB TWIGGS: There were satellites that were, you know, about 15 inches in diameter, and weighed about 50 pounds. And our problem there was that there was a lot of space, and the students kept wanting to add things to it, and add things to it. And plus, in order to get onto a launch, the bigger it was, the more difficult it was.
WALTER ISAACSON: To commit his students to inside the box thinking, professor Twiggs went shopping for the perfect small satellite casing at a local shop that sold plastic cases for collectibles.
BOB TWIGGS: At that time, there was a Beanie Baby craze, and there was this four inch box. So I bought one of those four inch boxes, and I took it back to my office. And the big thing was, how many solar cells could I get on the surface.
WALTER ISAACSON: Twiggs, who’d had experience working on small satellites for NASA, coaxed the agency to carry and launch some of his students Beanie Baby satellites in place of the lead weights they often packed to ensure the right payload weight. NASA folks found Professor Twiggs eccentric, but new space entrepreneurs who shared a drive for smaller, better, cheaper embraced the approach.
Bob Twiggs has since become the unofficial patron Saint of small sats, the hottest commodity in space technology, with spending expected to pass $30 billion in the next decade. Tom Markusic describes the potential of thousands of small sats orbiting the earth, forming networks– nickname, Constellations.
TOM MARKUSIC: These constellations promise all kinds of transformative capabilities that will have geopolitical implications. For example, if everyone can freely talk to one another around the world, that has huge implications. And it also has substantial economic implications because we can provide data services that were never before available, unless you had this bird’s eye view of the earth. So new space is, in a real sense, the frontier of the information revolution.
WALTER ISAACSON: And Chris Hadfield sees a lucrative future in extraterrestrial shipping.
CHRIS HADFIELD: If you talk to a commercial airline, they will tell you that there’s almost no profit in tourism. The real profit is in business, is in delivering packages, delivering baggage, and delivering business workers around the world. That’s where they truly profit. And there is a huge market that is just starting to be realized to deliver things off of the Earth as well.
If you could set up a company that could put packages on the moon for $100, the lineup of people would be a billion long. But you can’t do it yet, because the technology is not there. But it’s coming.
WALTER ISAACSON: To some, new space is just the next step in the natural evolution of human exploration. It follows a chain of human behavior that dates back many centuries.
Mike Barratt is a NASA astronaut and a physician specializing in space medicine.
MIKE BARRAT: So what the commercial world will do I think very much recapitulates what we’ve seen in history. You have explorers leave, say, Europe, and head to the New World, and find things. And it’s followed by entrepreneurs, if you will, looking to find some economic gain there. Who are eventually followed by homesteaders or pioneers. Eventually followed by colonists, if you will.
So the commercial world can do things that NASA isn’t necessarily that interested in developing, whether that’s new manufacturing techniques or space tourism.
WALTER ISAACSON: History records many stories of government sponsored explorers blazing trails for entrepreneurs to follow. It was true of Columbus and Magellan, just as it’s true with NASA. But those now following NASA into space are a very different breed, bringing Silicon Valley sensibilities and a whole new mission.
I’m Walter Isaacson, and this is Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies.
In a few weeks, we’ll be doing our first live Trailblazers event. It will be a discussion all about the future of robotics, where I’ll be speaking with some of the top names in the industry. If you’re in the Austin area, or you’re planning to come for South by Southwest, we’d love to see you there. The event takes place the evening of March 10, and it’s free to attend.
For more details, and to get on the list, head over to Dell Technologies.com/SXSW to RSVP. I hope to meet you if you come there. Thanks for listening.