LITTLE BIG PLANET
The new space race will put a lucky few into orbit, and their superfast flight will be an experience that changes how we view the world, and where we view it from, forever. Martin Rosser investigates
There’s a scene in the 2020 adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World where our protagonist lovers cross continents on a rocket flight. He is an ‘Alpha+’, a socially superior being who’s been-there-done-it; she is considered a societal lesser, a ‘Beta+’, and it’s her first time. Ignoring the superior Alpha disdain around her, she unbuckles at the apogee and floats free of gravity.
Her delight captures our excitement about this next phase in commercial flight: shooting into a low-space orbit, cruising weightlessly as diamond-bright stars twinkle in the blue-black vacuum and the planet turns far below, then plummeting down to the other side of the Earth. New York to Shanghai in half an hour. Brave New World is a work of pure fiction, the rocket trip – not so much.
The physics behind point-to-point rocket travel that put a man on the moon half a century ago also gave us the miracle of GPS and commutes astronauts to the International Space Station. We’ve nailed that.
The technology has changed much faster than the physics. In May, Nasa paid the man who makes Tesla cars, Elon Musk, to ferry its astronauts up to the International Space Station. The technology of SpaceX’s spacecraft Dragon Crew is extremely impressive.
But even that is less important than the political turnaround and the implications it could have for connectivity in a world staked with corporate outposts and the enclaves of community that spring up around them. America’s Space Shuttle programme was mothballed in 2011, its baked-in failures admitted to in private if not public.
For the rest of the decade, Americans hitched a ride on simple yet reliable communist rockets. It was an echo of the myth that America wasted millions developing a pen to write in space while Russian cosmonauts were issued pencils – but with far more truth to it.
The Soviet Union that created Soyuz rockets was buried by history a decade before the Space Shuttle misadventure collapsed under its own hubris and publicity. But those Soyuz-taxi years weren’t wasted. The path was cleared for private industry to boldly go where no state had kept on going before.
Dragon Crew may be a triumph for international capitalism, but for Elon Musk, it’s a mile marker. He founded SpaceX in 2002 to slash the cost of putting payloads into space because he plans to colonise Mars. He sees, though, he can make money from this milestone.
“You can get to most long-distance places in less than half an hour,” he says of rocket travel, “and if we’re building this thing to go to the moon and Mars, then why not go to other places on Earth as well.” Carrying paying customers, he means.
Of course, SpaceX is not alone. The invisible hand of free-market capitalism would be just a stagnant monopoly without the advances of prescribed competition. Chief among Musk’s space rivals is Richard Branson, who founded Virgin Galactic in 2004.
“I’m not as passionate about Mars as Elon,” said Branson in 2017. “My love for space is about how much it can do for people here on Earth.” Branson has already sold tickets to take tourists into space. And, like Musk, he is not blind to the big opportunity.
“To get to space we’re going to be flying a craft that’s going 3,000 miles per hour. Taking that craft and looking at point-to-point travel is something we are going to be in the best position in the world to do.”
Completing the holy trinity of space-entry-preneurs is Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who founded Blue Origin in 2000 to deliver low-cost suborbital flight as a step towards higher goals. “We humans have to go to space if we are going to continue to have a thriving civilization,” Bezos said in 2019.
“We have become big as a species, and this planet is relatively small. We see it in things like climate change and pollution and heavy industry. We have to preserve this planet.
“Eventually it will be much cheaper and simpler to make things in space, so no more big factories and pollution on Earth,” Bezos says. “Earth can be zoned residential.”
The hard economics underwriting these dreams is simple, as stated by a report from Swiss investment bankers UBS that predicts annual revenue of $20 billion from long-haul space travel by 2030. This is extrapolated from current flights of 10 hours or more that will soon be taken via space each year.
The ability to cross vast swathes of the planet in just hours could radically impact the complexion of global real estate
UBS analyst Jarrod Castle said: “There are over 800 routes servicing over 150 million passengers. Even a small percentage of that market is a material revenue opportunity once this product is delivered.”
The early adopters will be the smallest percentage of the smallest percent who are likely to see travel beyond the atmosphere as a viable mode of transport. They may hash out the small print on superfast broadband but they know how vital are the personal connections made over lunch or a coffee, by a handshake – face-to-face.
The bigger the business, the smaller the world has to become to make it work, because all businesspeople are people. Shaving long, boring hours off jet flight by trading up to a rocket will be as obvious to them as the move from first class to private jet, back in the day.
Similarly, the ability to cross vast swathes of the planet in just hours could radically impact the complexion of global real estate. New residential and commercial centres will be defined by their proximity to launch pads or space ports.
The infrastructure needed to join the dots – roads, local accommodation, hospitality – could herald an economic boom around a space port in a similar way to when a major airport or rail hub is built or expanded.
In the future, real estate may too be defined as a primary dwelling or secondary residence that can launch these superfast planes from their own launch pads or runways. Today in a similar way that helipads or private airstrips are requisites for the wealthiest, in the not-too-distant future, retro-futuristic superconnected hideaways that would make a Bond villain jealous may yet come to be realised.
Investment bankers Morgan Stanley were as bullish as UBS, predicting last December that Virgin Galactic stock would triple in value to $22 once it showed it was on the way to flying space passengers at hypersonic speeds. The stock did far better than that, passing $42 before Covid-19 pummelled the markets in Mad March.
By then, Morgan Stanley had gone cold on the soaring stock, but recent developments have shown Virgin Galactic is far from being a one-trick space pony. In August, they announced an agreement in which Rolls Royce will supply engines for a Virgin Galactic supersonic plane. It’s a super-sleek delta wing that looks like an upgraded Concorde and should fly at 60,000 feet carrying up to 19 passengers at Mach 3.
This is not hypersonic (Mach 5), and it’s not in space, but the excitement came from the completed Mission Concept Review, in which the two companies and Nasa see “the way toward use of state-of-the-art sustainable aviation fuel”, leading to “adoption in the rest of the aviation community”. It also helps that they have been “working with the FAA to ensure our designs can make a practical impact from the start.”
From left to right:
inside the cabin of Virgin Galactic’s supersonic plane;
Richard Branson jumps for joy at VSS’s launch;
SpaceX’s Dragon takes off
Not content with rockets for space tourism and supersonic sustainable planes, Virgin Galactic have also sealed a deal with Nasa, a Space Act Agreement, to find and train astronauts for low-Earth orbit and get them to the International Space Station and back. Nasa isn’t handing over its astronaut training programme. This is about Virgin finding and training people who want to pay to become astronauts – because Nasa sees that scientists, governments, and technology researchers will want to use the ISS.
Is this why Branson believes Virgin Galactic is going to be “in the best position” to win this new space race? Maybe not. Musk and Bezos are both betting on what Musk calls BFRs. He called his ‘Big F-expletive Rocket’ Falcon 9 to deflect the F in his acronym, but these are direct descendants of the awesome Saturn 5 that powered Apollo out of our gravity well.
Branson has a different technology. SpaceShipTwo is carried high into the atmosphere by WhiteKnightTwo, a twin-fuselage four-engined jet. The carrier drops off the spaceship in the stratosphere, where it fires its rocket and powers up into space.
Modern BFRs will be more efficient than a Saturn 5, but Virgin Atlantic’s approach is bound to need even less fuel. It also means they use a runway instead of a spaceport. That’s two major advantages in a crowded world concerned about climate change. WhiteKnightTwo also stands to gain from any new, greener fuel developed for the supersonic plane.
SpaceX lands its Falcon rocket vertically, balanced on its flaming jet. It’s all the more amazing when you grasp it is landing on a ship at sea – slashing both the fuel and environmental costs. The landing looks serene, like a sci-fi movie, which is probably why Musk named his two sea-going spaceports in honour of ships from the sci-fi novels of Iain M Banks: Just Read The Instructions and Of Course I Still Love You.
Runway or spaceport, people will cross the planet in under an hour, enjoying on the way a privileged vision of Earth. Branson and Bezos believe this new technology can save our planet, and Branson spoke movingly about how the view from the window may turn out to be the most important thing of all.
Astronauts call it the overview effect: overwhelming awe at seeing our planet, whole, hanging in the void. It was Apollo 8 astronauts who took the famous photo Earthrise, and one of them said long after: “Our total focus was on the moon. We weren’t thinking about looking back at the Earth.
But that may well have been the most important reason we went.” Sometimes you have to step back from something to see it clearly, park the petty day-to-day issues and appreciate how precious it is. We may get that soon. O brave new world, that has such visions in’t.