Billionaires propose big space plans

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At separate interviews given during a media conference held this week in California, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos each expressed their thoughts about what they hope to accomplish in space over the next few decades.

First, Jeff Bezos outlined his belief that, in order to protect the Earth, humanity is going to have to eventually move its heavy manufacturing off the planet and into space. He thought colonizing the planets was a cool idea, but his focus remained with Earth, and using space as a way to protect it.

Musk meanwhile revealed his company’s long range plans for Mars, including their firm intention to send a Dragon capsule to the red planet during every future launch opportunity, beginning with 2018. Each mission will provide information needed to improve and develop their engineering so that they can hopefully send humans there by 2024.

A realistic appraisal of both men’s proposals will quickly recognize that they are probably overly optimistic. Bezos might be right that we should move our heavy industries into space, but he is not realistic to think this can happen soon, or is even possible. Musk’s company SpaceX might be laying the groundwork for the eventual colonization of Mars, but to think it will begin happening by 2024 is unrealistic.

Still, what both men are proposing are things that they are personally helping to make happen. Neither man has to get anyone else’s permission or approval to push these dreams. All they need to do is make sure the products they are building for accomplishing these tasks can also make money by providing services to others. Since this is exactly what both men are doing, they will likely achieve far more than anyone can imagine, even if the specific proposals they are putting forth now do not happen in their lifetimes.

This bright and very possible future is far different than the powerpoint proposals that NASA and big government have offered to us over and over again for the past four decades. Those ideas, while also ambitious, could never happen because they were dependent on the approval of too many other players, Congress, the public, the press, the bureaucracy. They were not founded on profits, so they became a drain on the economy instead of a source of wealth. The result was that we have gone nowhere and developed little new space technology in the years since the last Apollo landing.

Only now, with our renewed reliance on capitalism and profits, are we finally beginning to see the dreams expressed in those NASA powerpoint proposals coming to life. And it isn’t the government that is making them happen, but free individuals, with big dreams and the will to pursue them.

Expect there to be privately funded manned missions to Mars in the next decade. And expect there to be factories in orbit, far sooner than anyone expects.


  • mpthompson

    Musk is not very old. He’ll likely live to see the first men walk on Mars, if not see the establishment of permanent settlements.

  • Edward

    Musk’s Idea of sending a mission to Mars at every trajectory opportunity (every 26 months) has the advantage of assuring that equipment (rockets, spacecraft, landers) will be ready to go to help in times of trouble. One of the challenges of the story “The Martian” was getting a food supply ship ready in a big hurry. In that story, they sent missions every four years rather than every two years, so they were not equipped for the unimaginable situation that was the basis of the story.

    Bezos’s statements suggested that he would be prepared to support any commercial operation, even one to return to the moon.

    Today, I bought a book, “The Value of the Moon: How to Explore, Live, and Prosper in Space Using the Moon’s Resources”. I have not yet read it, but the preface succinctly sums up America’s space situation: the American civil space program abounds with strategic confusion. The preface also suggests that recent robotic exploration of the moon show that lunar resources make the Moon a more compelling destination than we had previously thought.

    The Moon-or-Mars argument rages among many space enthusiasts, but the argument of one or the other only applies if one organization (e.g. NASA) is making the choice. Modern space policy allows for commercial companies to engage in the decision making about the use and exploration of space. There is no longer a need for either/or; both may be chosen, each by an independent company or consortium of companies.

    SpaceX is going for Mars colonization, Planetary Resources is going for asteroid mining, and Blue Origin’s chief said that he is eager for space manufacturing.

    In my youth, I argued for the Moon as a proving ground for the technologies and techniques that would be needed for the far away Mars. The story “The Martian” shows the danger of proving all our technologies and techniques at Mars — a problem could take years before rescue or resupply are possible. A problem on the Moon could take only days (or months, if a rocket or spacecraft is not immediately available) for resupply or rescue. Two decades ago, I believed that the Mars Direct proposal showed that Mars was achievable at an affordable cost without the need for a lunar base, and I began to argue Mars first.

    Today, however, I argue going for both destinations by depending upon private organizations to fund and profit from the efforts.

    I suspect that a base or colony on the Moon could ease our effort at Mars. The Moon, lunar orbit, or cislunar space could provide an excellent stepping-off point for Martian expeditions, much as St. Louis did for western North America in the 19th century. The Moon could help supply resources that are not readily found on Mars, as the lunar gravity-well is much shallower than Earth’s, thus potentially costing less for transportation.

    The Moon and Mars would be good places to experiment with space elevators, as they are not threatened by space junk, as Earth orbit is. Without the problem of avoiding space junk, the problems of control, Coriolis and third-body forces, and operation would be left as major challenges. Space elevators could greatly ease descent and ascent difficulties — however, countering the Coriolis forces would likely require some expenditure of propellant, perhaps by ion engine(s).

    Meanwhile, NASA specializes in overly expensive manned space programs, as though they use the Apollo program as the model — cost is no object. The Space Shuttle was expensive, ISS is expensive, there has been at least one NASA proposal for an expensive Mars program, and now SLS is costing so much that additional productive activities cannot be seriously proposed — except by commercial companies. Commercial companies, look to do things that sell, are far more creative, find lower cost methods, and are — as a group — able to imagine and take on more projects than a government organization, such as NASA.

    When we left it up to government, all we got was what government (specifically Congress and various presidents) was willing to do. Now that We the People are starting to do it ourselves, we are getting more of what we want: small satellites, cubesats, nanosats, less expensive launch vehicles and launch vehicles for smaller satellites, space tourism, less expensive space habitats, multiple manned spacecraft (Dream Chaser is even being developed without government assistance), and at least one company dedicated to putting people on Mars.

  • In the late 19th/early 20th Centuries the ‘Robber Barons’ seeked self-aggrandizement: it was the currency of the day. But they built things. Railroads, infrastructure, refineries, automobiles: what they built employed tens of thousands of people and afforded opportunity to many.

    Now we have the a new generation of wealthy people who see space as an avenue to riches. Like the Golden Age of aviation, the government funded pioneering efforts, and the private sector took the baton and ran with it. Perhaps the currant passing of the baton was flawed, but the private sector has recovered quickly. It may be that the plans of the plutocrats are overly ambitious, but I won’t bet against them. The real race is between the forces of evil in Progressivism, and the promise of a free future in an interplanetary society.

  • To mpthompson:

    I’m somewhat older than Elon Musk, and I expect to see the first people on Mars and the establishment of a permanent base.

  • Edward

    Blair Ivey Wrote: “Now we have the a new generation of wealthy people who see space as an avenue to riches.”

    Although I agree with much of the rest of Blair Ivey’s comment, I’m not so sure that they are after personal wealth. Many of them are already fabulously wealthy; they could comfortably retire on their current wealth. Elon Musk has stated that his goal is to be a colonist on Mars. Jeff Bezos seems interested in moving the polluting industries into space so that the Earth can remain clean. Planetary Resources (Peter Diamandis, Chris Lewicki, and Eric Andersen) want to mine asteroids rather than Earth. Robert Bigelow wants to make space stations commonplace. Richard Branson wants to turn into reality the dream of many of us: going into space.

    It seems to me that these people are less interested in money and more interested in preserving the Earth, expanding humanity into the solar system, and realizing the dreams we had in the 1960s — the dreams we thought NASA would turn into reality.

    In the 1970s and early 1980s, we expected the Space Shuttle to make access to space easy, regular, inexpensive, safe, and common. We expected space stations and a return to the Moon.

    We had great expectations.

    Instead, NASA was charged by the government with doing what government wanted, not with what We the People wanted.

    By 1990, we realized the folly of relying on NASA, as it was controlled by the president and funded by Congress, who were not controlled by We the People. They had other things on their minds.

    In the 1990s, several rocket companies formed, such as Armadillo and Kistler, in order to fill the expectation gap. Diamandis boldly created the X-Prize in order to encourage reusability in rockets and spacecraft, with no reasonable expectation that anyone could actually fulfill the requirements or that he could raise the $10 million prize money; although many others also rose to the challenge, Burt Rutan succeeded in building the rocket that won the prize. Lockheed Martin, McDonnell Douglas, and Rotary Rocket tried and failed to make single stage to orbit rockets in order to fulfill the disappointed expectations of the Space Shuttle.

    In the 2000s, Bigelow began working on NASA’s (abandoned) expandable habitats in order to bring us less expensive space stations. SpaceX worked on less expensive rockets in order to bring access to space to more companies, countries, and universities. Virgin Galactic, XCOR, and Blue Origin worked on space tourism, with a sideline of scientific sounding rocketry.

    Meanwhile, it was Big Government that made everything expensive.

    Some people think that it is all about money. If it were, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffet, Larry Ellison, and others would have taken their billions as soon as their net worth stopped growing — they would have done as Steve Wozniak did and retired. Instead, they continued to head their companies, because they liked the work, not the money. Money is just the byproduct. Instead, we are all (customers, employees, suppliers) better off because they were innovative and industrious. (watch 30 to 40 seconds for my point)

    Bezos, Diamandis, Musk, and others were inspired by Project Apollo, having watched it on live television, and like many of us, dreamed of a time when space would look and operate a little like we had seen in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.” When it became clear that government had no intention of fulfilling that dream, they took it upon themselves at the risk of their personal fortunes and reputations in order to make it come true. Government had failed them, so they chose to do it on their own.

    I wish them luck. I hope they succeed.

  • ken anthony

    …to think it will begin happening by 2024 is unrealistic

    Falcon Heavy will launch this year. Dragon 2, other than testing, is ready now. The difference between a cargo and crew capsule are just a few details, but landing isn’t one of them. Only about >4% of SpaceX flights will be these…

    Apr. 2018 – 1st landing test
    Jul. 2020 – 2 to 3 Dragons, 4 to 7 tons of supplies.
    Sep. 2022 – 3 to 5 Dragons, 10 to 18 tons of supplies now waiting.
    Nov. 2024 – 4 crew and open cabin electric rover.

    They really need about 40 tons of supplies waiting for them. So yeah, 2024 seems fast; however, MCT may make a supply run inside this time frame (we should find out this Sept.) MCT might come on this quick for three reasons. 1) Cargo only doesn’t need as much development time. 2) Superdracos already exist for landing. 3) Raptor development has quietly been going on for some time now.

    The thing is, if they do supply runs every launch window, it may not happen that soon but we will be getting closer with every payload (assuming they all go to near the same site.) Exciting times regardless.

  • wayne

    The only thing that can stop Private Space…. is the FAA.

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