May 28, 2021 8 min read

SPACE: The final frontier?

SPACE: The final frontier?

Wiser! #16 (Premium): The Space Race used to be between two most powerful nations. Now the superpowers are the two richest men in the world, plus Sir Richard Branson.

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How the 2 richest men in the world replaced the 2 largest superpowers in the Space Race (plus Richard Branson)

Sixty years after the race between the world's 2 largest superpowers, the new space race is between the world's 2 richest men.

In the 1960's, it was the USA v Soviet Union in a winner takes all race to put the first person on the Moon. In the 21st century, it's tech billionaires playing with their space ships on a mission to save humanity.

For Tesla owning Elon Musk, his vision is to establish self-sustaining colonies on Mars. Musk sees it as "life insurance for life as a whole", in the event that something disastrous happens to planet Earth, such as climate change or Artificial Intelligence getting out of control.

For Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, he wants to build gigantic floating colonies in space that one day will be home to "trillions of us". Worried about the future of planet Earth, Bezos believes we have a better chance of preserving it by taking resources from other planets.

"Look at those cavemen go, it's the freakiest show"

Lyrics from the best song of the 1970's, David Bowie's Life on Mars asks the question whether there is any life beyond what we see.

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SpaceX v Blue Origin - And the $3bn NASA contract

Feuding between Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos isn't new when it comes to Space.

The current spat is about SpaceX winning the contract from NASA to build the reusable lander to return American astronauts to the moon. Blue Origin also bid for the contract and went from being the most expensive to being the cheapest through the procurement process.

Despite being the cheapest, Blue didn't win and Bezos isn't happy. He's now challenging the NASA decision and calling foul.

However, from what I can see, this wasn’t about price. SpaceX won because they offered NASA the flexibility to launch and bring back the biggest payloads. Over 100 tonnes, which was significantly greater than the capacity of Blue Origin.

Just think about that for a second.

The SpaceX Starship payload capacity is the equivalent of sending 8 double-decker buses to the Moon and back!

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The SpaceX Starship comes in 2 halves and is the largest space rocket ever, as tall as a 30 storey building and as wide as a house!

The Space Economy

But there's a lot more going on in the space economy than just SpaceX, BlueOrigin and Virgin Galactic. In the 52 years since Apollo 11 landed on the surface of the Moon, there have been more spacecraft to Mars than to any other planet.

According to Google XPrize, the global space economy is worth $433bn a year and is expected to hit $600bn by 2030.

According to Professor Loizos Heracleous of Warwick Business School, commercial companies now account for about 80 percent of the global space economy.

Interesting side note: the combined wealth of Bezos, Musk and Branson is around $375bn, which is roughly the size of the GDP of Denmark!.

When KPMG analysed the key trends behind this growth in the space economy, they broke it down into these 5 pillars;

  • Humans will live, work and holiday in space. You’ll most likely know an astronaut as many will experience space, but not everyone. Space travel will be a collaborative global venture and living in space will be easier (but still not easy). New medical conditions and new treatments will arise.
  • Deep space exploration. We’ll mine water from the Moon by 2030 and will be able to grow food in space. VR companions will exist to help with mental health when traveling long distances in space. We’ll operate machines remotely and perhaps finally discover evidence of life in space.
  • Space business models. Most businesses will be space businesses and the government will be a customer - essentially, the space business will be what start-ups are today. Terrestrial industries will have a presence in space, countries will work together to tackle the industry and manufacturing will be doable.
  • Space data comes back to Earth. Space data will be commoditized but it will be regulated internationally and it will be owned. AI will be normality and governments will start conducting censuses from space.
  • Sustainability in space.  Sustainability in space will benefit sustainability on Earth and space will have its own legal jurisdiction. Space ecology will be necessary for younger generations and it will be offered as a Master’s program at universities.

As well as saving humanity and giving thrill rides to the edge of space for very wealthy individuals, an area of huge focus in the commercial space economy is the mining of asteroids.

As the world runs out of much-needed minerals, some think the best place to look for them would be mining asteroids as they pass the earth. And that raises the question of who owns space.

The UN Outer Space treaty of 1967 states no nation can claim sovereignty of any celestial body. The UN Moon Treaty signed in 1979 modifies that slightly, suggesting states and companies can benefit, provided there is also a benefit for all mankind.

To illustrate the size of the prize, take Davida, the 7th largest asteroid in the Asteroid belt and is the most valuable. It contains valuable materials such as nickel, iron, cobalt, water, nitrogen, hydrogen, and ammonia. The estimated value of the mineral and element content from mining Davida is put at 27 QUINTILLION USD (that's '27' followed by 18 zeros).

And Davida is only one of about 15 asteroids with mining potential!

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SpaceX

Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 with the goal of first developing reusable launch technology to decrease the cost of getting to space. Since then, SpaceX has found success with its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft.

Falcon9 - a reusable rocket launcher to take payloads and people into Earth orbit and outer space.

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Dragon Spacecraft - these are the space capsules that carry 7 humans into space. The Dragon is the only spacecraft capable of returning significant amounts of cargo to Earth. It was also the first commercial spaceship to dock at the International Space Station (ISS) in 2012, delivering cargo.

In 2020, SpaceX became the 1st private company to take human beings to the ISS.

Starship - is a reusable spacecraft and rocket launcher. It is designed to carry up to 100 tonnes of cargo and crew into space. That's the equivalent of 8 Routemaster double-decker buses. It is this design that has just been awarded the contract by NASA.

SpaceX’s ultimate goal is human settlement of Mars. In the meantime, launching paying customers into Space is an interim step.

Musk says he hopes to show that space travel can be done easily and that tourism might provide a revenue stream to support the development of the larger, Mars-focused Starship system.

Blue Origin

Jeff Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2004 and has proceeded slowly and quietly in also developing reusable rockets.

Their New Shepard rocket was first successfully flown in 2015 and will be the spaceship taking tourists on suborbital trips to the edge of space this July.

For Bezos, these launches represent an effort at making space travel routine, reliable, and accessible as a first step to enabling further space exploration.

Bezos has a different motivation for going to Space than Musk. He believes the Earth is irreplaceable and wants to preserve it for future generations.

He wants to tap into the unlimited resources in space, specifically from the moon. There's a lot of ice at the moon's poles which could be mined for fuel to power Blue Origin's space vehicles.

Bezos ultimately wants to create something straight out of seventies science fiction:  space colonies. Large, floating settlements holding a million people or more that can support animals and plants as well.

Virgin Galactic

Also founded in 2004, Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has less ambitious plans than SpaceX and Blue Origin.

Virgin Galactic wants to develop Space Tourism.

Their plans are to carry six passengers at a time into sub-orbital space and give them about six minutes of weightlessness in the course of a two and a half hour flight.

The Virgin Galactic approach to technology is totally different in that the launch into space is not from a rocket on the ground but from a jet airplane (called Eve).

The mothership (Eve) flies to an altitude of about 18km (about twice as high as regular aircraft fly) and releases a smaller, rocket-powered spacecraft (called Unity).

This smaller plane (Unity) then flies up to an altitude of about 55 miles, on the edge of Space and Earth’s gravity.

Earlier this week, Virgin Galactic completed its third spaceflight, and first from their new home in New Mexico. This was the first of four planned spaceflights for 2021.

The next one is slated to have two pilots and four Virgin Galactic employees as passengers, and a third flight is scheduled to have Virgin founder Richard Branson on board.

Flight four is intended to be a commercial flight for the Italian Air Force, which should generate $2 million in revenue.

Around 600 people have already booked their place on a Virgin Galactic Voyage, including Justin Bieber and Leonardo DiCaprio.

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The market for Space Tourism

In addition to Virgin Atlantic, both SpaceX and Blue Origin are scheduled for Space tourism flights this year.

SpaceX currently has two tourist launches planned. The first is scheduled for as early as September 2021, funded by billionaire businessman Jared Isaacman.

The other trip, planned for 2022, is being organized by Axiom Space. These trips will be costly for wannabe space travelers, at $55 million for the flight and a stay on the International Space Station.

Blue Origin is currently running an online auction for a seat on New Shephard when it flies to the edge of Space on 20th July. The auction for the 10-minute flight will come to a close on June 12th in a live bid.

The current highest bid is $2.8m.

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Sustainability in Space

A sobering thought to finish on!

There have been thousands of launches into Space since 1957 when the first human-made object (Sputnik I) was launched by the Soviets.

And it’s getting worse with the numbers of launches increasing each year. There were 114 launches into Space in 2020 alone.

Recently, the uncontrolled re-entry of debris from China’s Long March 5B rocket made world news because of its sheer size and the risk of damage. It is just one example of the problems of space debris and traffic management.

Currently, there are about 3,400 operational satellites in orbit and about 128 million pieces of debris. Surprisingly, given the amount of space in Space, the risk of collisions and debris falling to Earth is a growing issue.

To address the issue, the United Nations has issued guidelines on the Long-term Sustainability of Activities in Outer Space.

As if plastic bottles in the Indian ocean weren't enough to contend with!


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