I’m going to outer-space. A dream, a far-fetched fantasy some may assume. An illusion that many before me have had, and many after me will continue to have. Yet, we’re entering times where what used to be the object of science fiction during the late XIX century, is ever closer of becoming a reality. As of the writing of these words, 563 people have been to outer-space, following the first cosmonaut, Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin. These 563 astronauts have spent varying times floating above earth, with the record going to cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, who spent a total of 878 days across five different missions. For now, the privilege of watching the Sun rise in the curved horizon, of admiring the snow-capped mountains, the Aurora’s, the meandering of river deltas, the eye of a growing storm; is a privilege that has been limited to prepared scientists, individuals that have dedicated their livelihoods to subjects that probably by chance became objects of research in space, and without a doubt, individuals that at some point dreamed of achieving such feat. However, this is set to change, space will no longer be limited to ambitious erudites, it will sooner than we think open for anyone brave enough (and with a large enough checkbook) to become part of the first creatures to leave earth, in all of its 4.5 billion-year history.
For these future achievements we have the space race to thank for. Not the 20th century space race among the cold war rivals, but the 21st century space race, which has pitted dreamers against each other, billionaire dreamers in fact. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos with Blue Origins; Virgin Group’s Sir Richard Branson with Virgin Galactic; and Mr. I-Do-Everything Musk with SpaceX; they are leading the way to a future where us, a bunch of conscious primates, are able of leaving the only home we’ve ever had, of migrating life across planets, of believing that dreams are as real and as possible as you want them to be. Still, these space-pioneers don’t have the same ambitions in mind. Their projects similarities start and end at the fundamental point of escaping the grasp of Earth’s gravitational pull, the methods and capabilities of these companies are as varied as their founders’ businesses. However, before getting into details, let’s cover the basics of rocket science and space travel.
The main obstacle to overcome is gravity; since gravity pulls us down, rockets must generate enough thrust (force) to overcome said gravity. This process requires a lot of energy, energy which we get in the form of fuel, hence the type of fuel and how efficiently it is used is of utmost importance, which also explains why designing the best possible engine is a priority. To overcome gravity, a two-stage process has been commonly used in the industry for decades: the first stage is the rocket (or an aircraft as in the case of Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity) which takes the main load (be it cargo or astronauts) to sub-orbital levels where gravity is no longer an issue. After this, the second stage is activated, by launching the main load in a spacecraft (vehicle used for travelling IN space) which travels to its final destination with a different engine and much less fuel because in the vacuum of space the amounts of energy required to overcome gravity is no longer an issue; all these while the first stage rockets drop back to earth. Now we can tackle these spacepreneurs.
Virgin Galactic has very straightforward goals: to make space tourism a thing. It is succeeding to achieve such goal through rather unconventional methods, unconventional because when looking at the spaceships it has developed, one may wonder if it’s really a spaceship. They very wittingly used their knowledge on air travel gained through Virgin Atlantic, to design a two-part space-flight system, named VSS Unity by Stephen Hawking, that looks more like a regular airplane than a spaceship. The first section is the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, this carrier doesn’t reach low gravity orbit, but it carries the second part, the SpaceShipTwo, up to 50,000ft. (~15,000 meters), point at which they separate and the SpaceShipTwo starts its 60,000 lbf thrust hybrid engine (uses both solid and liquid propellants) and launches its way into sub-orbital space (sub-orbital means a quick grasp of microgravity, orbital means completing at least one orbit around Earth). This spaceship can carry eight passengers (two being pilots); the tourists will get to experience micro-gravity for 4 minutes before dropping back to Earth. During those four minutes they will both gasp at the wonders of outer-space and enjoy a Godly view of Earth. The ingeniousness of the team to tackle the space-race with a completely different approach, using their previous knowledge on aircrafts, is to be praised. However, compared to its competitors, Virgin Galactic in reality is playing high-school baseball while the others are facing each other at the World Series.
Bezos and Musk both have been dreaming of reaching the stars for decades. Bezos talked about space colonies in his high school graduation speech (who doesn’t?), while Musk has had an obsession with the Red Planet for years. When Musk was laying the ground-blocks for SpaceX, he traveled to Russia to purchase a rocket, this however did not go as planned, as he was rudely rejected and even spit on; he turned to crunching the numbers to find out if it was financially achievable to build it on his own, and found out it was. Both companies were founded in the early 2000’s. Today SpaceX leads the way with a number of contracts with NASA to carry supplies and research tools to the ISS, to date has completed over a dozen of this missions and has over sixty successful launches. However, Blue Origins is a close second that does not plan on staying there forever.
Currently, SpaceX has two working spaceships and one under development, while Blue Origin has one working and another still developing. SpaceX’s lineup consists of: the Falcon 9 rocket (named after both Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon, and its characteristic nine Merlin engines) which has been launching the cargo-carrying Dragon spacecraft to the ISS since 2012 with a 1,800,000 lbf thrust; the Falcon Heavy, which has 27 Merlin engines with a thrust of 5,130,000 lbf, and had its first successful launch in 2018, when it both successfully landed its boosters simultaneously, and sent Starman jamming to Bowie onboard a Tesla into orbit (Elon being Elon); and the Big Falcon Rocket, which is a two-stage launch vehicle and spacecraft; the first stage is called the Super Heavy Falcon Rocket, which is in charge of escaping Earth’s gravity with its 35 Raptor engines and 15,000,000 lbf thrust; the second stage, named the Starship, would be in charge of some minor achievements such as orbiting the moon, colonizing mars, and 30 minute London-Hong Kong flights, you know, minor stuff. SpaceX is not currently a contender on the space tourism industry, its focus(for now) is to continue growing as a reliable service provider to NASA, to put its own satellites into orbit (the Starlink fleet) or private companies that want to put their satellites into orbit at low costs. Blue Origin on the other hand, wants everything, and they just might get it.
Blue Origin’s New Shepard is a reusable launch vehicle with two main purposes: carrying tourists on short microgravity trips, just as Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity; and carrying loads with tools for microgravity research, be it from NASA or another company. The rocket has a 110,000 lbf BE-3PM engine, that thrust difference explains why the Falcon 9 is much superior and can carry a higher load, however, it was never Blue Origin’s intention to compete the New Shepard with the Falcon 9, they leave that job to its big brother. The dormant goliath under Blue Origin’s sleeve is its New Glenn rocket, which will allegedly boast of a thrust of 3,850,000 lbf; although it has less thrust than the Falcon Heavy, it is designed with more empty space for carrying payload, because of which it can carry almost 50% more payload than the Falcon Heavy, meaning that it reduces the cost per kg, and reducing costs is pretty much the name of the game.
The main achievement of these companies is that they reuse their engines. It used to be that once the first stage of a rocket was used, it fell to the water and that was it. That’s why the Apollo missions were cancelled, it was just not economically viable, it costed more than half a billion dollars per launch; the fact that these new companies reuse them means they get more income per engine, meaning they both significantly reduced the launching costs. Currently the launch cost of the Falcon 9 is around ~$30 Million while the Falcon Heavy approaches $90M. Even though the New Glenn is still not operational, the costs are estimated to be higher than that of the Heavy, but it carries more payload so it evens out.
In every new technology, there is a point in its development that marks the difference, a point where luxury became mainstream, where hard becomes easy. Henry Ford made cars affordable, Bill Gates made computers user-friendly, Steve Jobs made telephones an external organ. Bezos and Musk have the vision of making humans space-people. The historical implication of such a feat is as amazing as the feat itself.
There are obstacles, clearly. Radiation due to solar winds, given that we wouldn’t have Earth’s magnetic field (depending in our distance from the surface) nor the ozone layer to protect us. The absence of gravity as well has major implications in our anatomy. These are some of the areas that current astronauts intentionally and unintentionally research in, and without a doubt they will play an important role in the future of space-travel. However, there is no doubt in my mind that that point, the moment where space becomes less of a fantasy and more of a weekend trip, where we become neighbors of the stars ancient civilizations just wondered and speculated about, is ever-closer. And we have the sagacity and ambition of futurist billionaires to thank for. They are changing the world by leaving it, they are teaching us the sky was never the limit, but the only limit is within ourselves. And we can specially thank Mr. Bezos, because next time you impulse-buy in Amazon something you absolutely did not need, you can just say you were investing in space-travel.