The new space race: Private companies are getting into the business of space travel – and it could produce the world’s first trillionaire

 
Ashwin Bhardwaj

Five-minutes’ drive from Kennedy Space Center, among the marshes and pine trees of Merritt Island Wildlife Reserve, lies Shuttles Restaurant & Bar.

On the back wall is a massive photograph of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, soaring into space on the back of an orange fuel tank. Bolted to its side are two white rockets, spouting white fire. These Solid Rocket Boosters [SRBs] powered the Shuttle away from Earth, and two minutes after launch, once they had run out of fuel, they would parachute down to the Atlantic Ocean, where they were recovered and refurbished for the next flight

“There’s a lot of pride round here about our connections to Kennedy,” says barmaid, Deena. “My grandfather worked on Apollo, and when he visited my mom’s school to talk about his job, he said he was ‘making history.’ Well, my mom wanted to be a part of history, too, so she got herself a job helping the divers on the SRB recovery.”

Shuttles Restaurant & Bar has also played a part in that history. Its tagline is “Where Astronauts Have Been Lunchin’ for over 30 Years” and the walls are covered with pictures of Shuttle crews tucking into dinner, or signed photos of astronauts in their flight suits. But no astronaut has lunched here since 2011, when Atlantis landed at Kennedy for the last time.

“This place was heaving back in the 1990s and 2000s,” says Deena, “The astronauts would come here for lunch in the days before a mission, and the ground crews would come in to celebrate each launch. But when the Shuttle was cancelled in 2011, nobody knew what would happen. Thousands of people round here worked at Kennedy and, when they lost their jobs, all the business dried up. It was pretty bad for a few years. But now things are looking up.”

The iconic Shuttles Restaurant and Bar sign

On a shelf behind the bar is the cause of that new optimism: a scale model of a Falcon 9 rocket, designed and built by the private company SpaceX. In February 2017, SpaceX opened a new chapter in spaceflight when they became the first private company to launch from Kennedy Space Center. A few weeks later, they announced a plan to send two tourists on a trip around the Moon. No human has been that far since Apollo 17, 45 years ago.

The Apollo project was powered by the Cold War, when American President John F Kennedy decided that the United States would not lose the Space Race to the Soviet Union. It was a battle of ambition, cost and innovation, with over 26,000 people working on the project at its height in 1969.

But from the moment Neil Armstrong declared, “The Eagle has landed,” the battle was won, public interest waned, and the final three Apollo launches were scrapped to save money. The hardware, however, was already built, and the Saturn V rocket that would have launched Apollo 18 now rests in a hangar at Kennedy Space Center. At over 360 feet long, with exhaust nozzles big enough to swallow a car, it’s still the largest, most powerful rocket ever flown, its sheer size symbolising the scale of the Apollo programme.

With the end of Apollo, NASA’s main goal became building a space station and helping the Department of Defense put reconnaissance satellites into orbit. The vehicle to do both was the Space Shuttle, and the sight of this elegant black and white space-plane, floating over the pale blue Earth, is an enduring image of the space age. Over 30 years, the five Orbiters of the Space Shuttle fleet flew 135 missions. Astronaut Ken Cameron was on three of them, including a visit to the Russian space station, Mir.

“We lived in Moscow to prepare for the mission,” Ken says. “Part of that was fostering cultural understanding. Of course, we learned more about each other whilst having dinner in town than we ever did in the training wing. Those relationships were essential in building the team and the knowledge that led to the International Space Station (ISS). So the Shuttle helped build the team, as well as the Station itself – its legacy is one million pounds of ISS orbiting the Earth every 90 minutes.”

Ashwin beneath a jet exhaust

“The Shuttle was very capable,” he says. “Its cargo bay meant that we could bring Russian hardware back to Earth that had spent years in space. By studying its wear and tear, we could improve the design and engineering of the International Space Station. That ability is unique, and will be hard to replace. But, ultimately, the Shuttle had to be retired, because it had design problems that couldn’t be engineered out.”

On 28 January 1986, a flaw in the right-side Solid Rocket Booster caused the Space Shuttle Challenger to explode, killing all seven astronauts on board. And on 1 February 2003, Columbia disintegrated as it re-entered the atmosphere. Seven more astronauts were lost. After each disaster, the Shuttle was grounded for over two years, as engineers and technicians tried to work out what went wrong.

“The last five years of the Shuttle were the safest it ever was,” says Jeff Lucas, a communicator at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. “But, in the end, it was too old, too expensive and too dangerous. It was in operation for 10 years longer than planned, and as soon as we finished building the ISS, the Shuttle programme finished, too.”

With the Shuttle’s retirement in 2011, NASA lost the ability to launch American astronauts from American soil. Since then they’ve paid Russia to ferry them up to the ISS – a bitter pill to swallow for the nation that won the Space Race. But in May 2018, SpaceX will fly its first crewed mission to the ISS as part of a commercial partnership with NASA. With Low Earth Orbit taken care of, NASA can focus its efforts elsewhere.

The Vehicle Assembly Building is the largest single-storey structure in the world. In the difficult years after the Shuttle’s demise, it lay unused; another sad relic of NASA’s glory days. Then, in 2014, it was refitted to service NASA’s newest rocket, the Space Launch System. Built using engines from the Space Shuttle, the Space Launch System will be more powerful than even the Saturn V. And it’s designed with one goal in mind: to send humans to Mars.

The NASA launch console

Getting to Mars requires more than just a big rocket. Astronauts orbiting Earth have instant communication with Mission Control, so any problems are resolved with their help. But because of the distances between Earth and Mars, those trailblazers will have to wait up to 26 minutes for a response. That means the kit and procedures for Mars will have to be more robust than any we have today. With no chance of a rescue if anything goes wrong, they’ll want to make sure it works before they set off.

The Mars mission will happen in stages. First, the “Deep Space Gateway”, will be built between Earth and the Moon. This will act as a sort of spaceport, where astronauts can simulate everything that might happen on the two-year round trip, and work out how to fix it. Next, a deep space transport vehicle, complete with inflatable habitats, will be assembled at the Gateway and given a dry run.

Long-duration missions place additional strains on the human body, ranging from solar-storm radiation and deterioration of bones, to the psychological pressures of long-term isolation. Having a run-through at the Gateway means problems can be ironed-out close to home. This all takes time and, even if everything goes to plan, humans won’t be orbiting Mars until 2033 at the earliest.

As well as the refit of the Vehicle Assembly Building, NASA has built a 40-storey mobile launch tower for the SLS, and designed a brand new spacecraft to sit on top of its powerful rocket: Orion. Whilst Orion might strike a passing resemblance to the pyramidal Apollo capsule, at 50 per cent larger, it can carry four astronauts instead of three.

“Sending astronauts into space has its risks,” say Ken Cameron, “But they’re important role models. We can explore with robotics, but it’s a difficult intellectual leap for a person to be inspired by a robot – you can imagine exploring as an astronaut in a way that you can’t imagine being a machine. And we need people to be inspired, because we need a new generation of astronauts for the next phase of space travel.

“NASA is at its best when it has a mission; when there’s a team of people who internalise those goals and push the mission forward. We need the very best people to be able to do that. I was a fighter and test pilot in the Marines, but now NASA needs diversity to succeed; everything from engineers to geologists to communicators and artists. So for anyone out there who dreams of being an astronaut, find something you like, and then get good at it, because NASA is going to need it all.”

Astronaut Ken Cameron

The qualities that the next generation of astronauts will need are laid out in the Heroes & Legends exhibition, using legendary astronauts’ childhood memorabilia, such as (second man on the Moon) Buzz Aldrin’s compasses, sports prizes and report cards. These artefacts symbolise the characteristics that NASA wants in its spacefarers: inspired, curious, passionate, tenacious, disciplined, confident, courageous, principled and selfless.

The first astronauts rode into space on top of Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles: nukes that had their warheads replaced by humans. They were pilots from the Air Force and Navy, many of whom had fought dogfights over the Korean Peninsula in the 1950s. To this day, all NASA Pilots and Commanders have military backgrounds, whilst payload specialists are often civilians. But there’s still hope for the less capable space-dreamer, so long as they have the money.

Russia has flown seven paying passengers to the ISS since 2001. A return ticket, with a 14-day stay on the Stations cost $40m. The two tourists on the SpaceX moon trip are paying an estimated $70m. Unlike Apollo, whose skilled pilots performed complex manoeuvres, the SpaceX craft will be controlled from Earth, although the two passengers will be trained for emergencies.

SpaceX isn’t the only company getting into space tourism. Boeing is also part of the Commercial Crew Programme, using its long experience with the Apollo, Shuttle and ISS to build the CST-100 Starliner. It will carry a crew of seven up to the ISS, and Boeing has struck a deal to take one tourist on every trip. Chris Ferguson, who commanded the final mission of the Shuttle programme, is in charge of the Starliner, and is likely to command its first flight in December 2018.

The moon landing

Amazon owner Jeff Bezos is ploughing his money into “Blue Origin”, which also begins manned flights in 2018. Blue Origin has leased a launch pad on Cape Canaveral Air Force Base, just down the road from its New Glenn rocket manufacturing facility beside Kennedy Space Center.

Meanwhile, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is working on a system to carry tourists for $250,000. Instead of being launched on top of a rocket, Virgin’s spacecraft is strapped beneath a plane, which takes off normally, until a rocket powers it to 100km. For a few minutes, the passengers will experience free fall, before the ship re-enters the atmosphere, then glides back to land on a runway.

The next generation of space travel is being driven by dreams of wealth as much as dreams of adventure: many economists believe the world’s first trillionaire will be made in space, through mining the vast mineral wealth of asteroids. In the race to get there, rocket companies are like the wagon-traders of the Gold Rush, and the spaceports they launch from are the new railroads.

Space is going to be big business. And with Kennedy Space Center booming again, astronauts may well be “lunchin’” at Shuttles Restaurant & Bar for another 30 ­­­­years.

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