Rocket Men

Meet the 21st-century pioneers who want to take you into space

Lots of kids go through an astronaut phase, usually sometime between fireman and president of the United States. For the last three generations of American children dreaming of slipping the surly bonds of Earth, the only game in the galaxy has been a federal agency: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). But since NASA’s space shuttle program shuddered to a stop in July 2011 with the final flight of the Atlantis, those kids—and the adults they have become—have been forced to look outside of government for liftoff. 

As luck would have it, there are quite a few men (and they are virtually all men) who would be more than happy to help. These 21st-century pioneers want to make spaceflight affordable, accessible, and commonplace, making a buck off your childhood fantasies in the process. They can’t offer the moon, yet. But they can supply various modes of travel and ways to achieve the astronaut experience, with or without Tang and freeze-dried ice cream.

For decades space enthusiasts and libertarian dreamers have imagined a future where robust competition replaces top-down bureaucracy in the provision of extra-atmospheric travel. reason has sketched this post-NASA vision in feature stories ranging from “Getting Off the Ground” (November 1981) to “Martian Chronicle” (February 1999) to “Space Travel for Fun and Profit” (January 2007). But thanks to a convergence of technological development, regulatory breathing room, and budgetary austerity (see “A Twinkle of Hope” on page 20), that future is now. 

Meet the folks who are working to get you and your inner child off terra firma and into the great beyond.

The Daredevil: Elon Musk

After SpaceX executed a nearly flawless launch and recovery of its Dragon capsule in December 2010, the company’s CEO and founder, Elon Musk, had only one regret—that there wasn’t anyone on board. “If there were people sitting in the Dragon capsule today,” he said at a post-launch press conference, “they would have had a very nice ride.” 

The Dragon voyage was the first time a commercial space vehicle had made it into orbit and back—a major milestone for the industry. For now the splashy success locks in Musk as the leader of a surprisingly large pack of space entrepreneurs who are looking to fill the gap left by NASA’s decommissioned shuttle.

Musk, a Stanford grad school dropout who was born in South Africa, made his fortune—estimated at $670 million—as one of the founders of the online payment site PayPal. Then he founded Tesla Motors, where he led development of an all-electric sports car. 

After the space shuttles were retired, NASA was forced to start paying Russians to ferry Americans and their gear back and forth to the International Space Station, at about $63 million per seat. Musk says SpaceX can do it for one-third the price. The added risk of throwing humans—or as Musk refers to them, “biological cargo”—doesn’t seem to worry him. 

There are plenty of details to be worked out as NASA hands over some of its traditional responsibilities to private industry. Musk’s famously prickly personality has been on display throughout the negotiations. In late October, he was one of several representatives from commercial space firms who appeared before the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology to complain about the terms of a contract with NASA to provide taxi services between Earth and the International Space Station. NASA, it seems, is having trouble letting go. Displeased with how the hearing went, Musk says Space X “may not bid” for the crew-carrying contract after all. Although it has inked deals to move cargo for NASA, SpaceX is always careful to emphasize that it has a $1 billion roster of private clients in case the government deals don’t pan out.

NASA doesn’t have the agility or the drive of the modern space industry, so it needs SpaceX and its ilk more than the reverse. An August NASA study found that SpaceX spent a total of $443 million developing the Falcon 9 rocket and launch vehicle that bore the Dragon capsule aloft. If NASA had undertaken the same project, the study found, the bill would have come in closer to $1.4 billion.

The Mogul: Richard Branson

Virgin Group Chairman Richard Branson isn’t a rocket scientist, but he knows a good publicity stunt when he sees it. The Ansari X Prize, which offered $10 million in private money for the first nongovernmental organization to launch a reusable manned spacecraft twice in a two-week period, brought a burst of public attention to the commercial space race in 2004. Branson quickly snapped up the rights to the winning vehicle, SpaceShipOne, and the team that went with it, including famous aviation whiz Burt Rutan. 

Since then Virgin has been working on SpaceShipTwo, which would carry two pilots and six passengers a few miles above the Karman line (the generally accepted threshold 62 miles up that separates Earth’s atmosphere from outer space) to check out the view and enjoy a brief period of weightlessness. Charging $200,000 per person (with a $20,000 deposit, please) Virgin Galactic already has 450 people signed up to fly as soon as the technology is ready and the regulatory hurdles have been cleared.

 The project has had setbacks; as with many other competitors in the arena, the official start of Virgin’s routine manned flights always seems to be two years away. But Branson is a tireless promoter, and Virgin Galactic has stayed in (and on top of) the news with a steady trickle of publicity stills, mockups, vehicle christenings, and other photo ops.

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  • poetry||

    fist again

    i'm awesome at this

  • Jordan Elliot||

    "Lots of kids go through an astronaut phase..."

    "But as luck would have it, writes Managing Editor Katherine Mangu-Ward, there are quite a few men who would be more than happy to help."

    In Space, no one can hear you scream... -NAMBLA 2012

  • anon||

    I really miss playing Silent Death. Such a fun game.

  • poetry||

    i really miss banging your mom

  • anon||

    Shut up, rather.

  • China||

    I'm afraid the vast majority of new and exciting manned space missions will be coming from us in the future.

    Enjoy your wars and your tax cuts. Afghanistan alone could fund an entire new shuttle program for you.

  • NeoCONNED||

    But we want it all you stupid Chinks! AND WE WILL HAVE IT, one American's destroyed savings at a time!!!! BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAH, HAHAHAHAHA, HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!

    We will build pyramids on Mars as we nuke the ones in Egypt. USA!!!!!! USA!!!!!!

  • o3||

    do u publish such visionary thoughts in some newsletter?

  • Kristol Rove||

    Yes, we do.

  • NotSure||

    The fact that governments are bankrupt is actually good for space, it will mean there will be less government ships and more private ones buzzing about in the final frontier.

  • anon||

    Until the first act of "Space Terrorism."

  • Jordan Elliot||

    Yep.

  • o3||

    or the first spectacular explosion

  • NotSure||

    Didn't the first spectacular explosion already happen.

  • Trespassers W||

    And the second?

  • o3||

    not w civil liability involved

  • annonymous commenter some guy||

    And that was just in the US. Did we ever get a body count out of the Soviet space program?

  • Britt||

    One of the too good to check stories from the Cold War tells of panicked Russian voices coming in on a ham radio, with the signal fading out as the source moved farther and farther from Earth orbit, falling toward the sun.

  • ||

    I've often wondered if it wasn't for NASA's buracracy and the sole determiner of what can or can't go into space, the private sector may have gotten further into space earlier.

  • ||

    China's up to what, 1962? And private space will blow them away once things get moving. On the flip side, they'll be able to afford to buy rides from American companies.

  • k2000k||

    Not likely your gonna be old before your rich. Now get back to the sweatshop we need a 1,000,000 more lead painted spongebob dolls for walmart.

  • curi||

    with or without Tang

    Long space flights are going to mighty lonely without a little 'tang.

  • Doktor Kapitalism||

    Ruining childhood stories, encore! Tang was invented by Kraft Foods a year before NASA was founded. Enough of that myth.

  • Trespassers W||

    Nice spaceship. Looks like some kind of bug.

  • anon||

    The pic changed from a cock & balls to a straight up dong.

  • ||

    "The surly bonds of Earth?" Yes, I find gravity quite churlish, too.

  • poetry||

    AS OVERWROUGHT AS POSSIBLE

  • ||

    Great. Now have that Elton John song in my head.

  • klepy||

    Tiny Dancer?

  • Colonel_Angus||

    The first pic was cooler. "Johnson! How fast is it traveling?"

  • Loki||

    Kind of forgot about Jeff Bezos. He's got a space company called Blue Orgins. Although they tend to be more secretive than Spacex or many of the others mentioned in the article.

    Whether commercial space truly kicks off is going to depend a lot on Bigelow's success or failure IMO. There needs to be someplace to go in space, and currently the only destination available is the ISS. Also, a private space station could kick start a lot of space research in addition to tourism.

    The $97 million dollars quoted in the article for 2 astronauts to travel to a Bigelow space station is chump change compared to the cost of going to the ISS, and I'm sure there will also be far less red tape and cost to fly a scientific payload to his station compared to NASA's as well.

  • JEP||

    It's my personal theory that real private space travel isn't going to occur based on tourism.

    It'll occur because we've identified an asteroid that has uranium or other useful minerals on it.

    Oil companies and the like already have a lot of experience establishing self sufficient based in extremely remote areas, i.e. oil drilling platforms.

  • annonymous commenter some guy||

    I don't see how we could hop straight to an asteroid. It's a much harder problem than even going to the Moon. We need to establish some sort of commercial presense in near Earth orbit and expand from there.

    Of course, the true holy grail would a space elevator. Make one of these and you change the economics drastically.

  • SFC B||

    Didn't I see a movie about this?

  • JEP||

    Did I just steal someone's IP?

  • ||

    Sorry but this is a retarded idea.

    There is absolutely no reason to go to SPACE for MINERALS. Especially minerals we have in relative abundance on Earth.

    The real boom in private space travel will occur because people just want to get as far away from everyone else as they possibly can.

  • Doktor Kapitalism||

    One--you read right, one--KNOWN asteroid has enough platinum in it to make platinum nearly worthless, it would be so common. The minerals of space, even factoring in production costs, will be entirely cost effective.

  • ||

    The real secret is space industry. One you set up the supply chain and infrastructure, you have finally that 'super abundance' of the future world.

  • FTFY||

    It'll occur because we've identified an asteroid that has uranium or other useful minerals on it when we need more prison space for dopers.

  • JEP||

    The Moon is a Harsh Mistress...here we come!

  • np||

    woohoo! we've got no nukes or rockets but all we have to do is fling some big rocks at you!

  • ||

    Crematoria

  • ||

    What can you do with bong smoke in zero-g? Trippy!

  • KW6||

    And before the first flight of a private passenger on a private spacecraft, some TSA goon will first have to fondle his "launch hardware".

    It would be nice if going to space would let us leave tyranny behind.

    http://www.bigheadpress.com/eft?page=1

  • Doktor Kapitalism||

    I don't imagine the UN will be able to control Mars colonies, and individual nations certainly won't, so I'd say there's a good chance is the right people (read: libertarians) frame the governments.

  • ||

    Branson's project has had more than setbacks: it killed 3 Scaled Composites workers and injured three other ones when a tank exploded. Or did you just forget that?

  • hey now||

    Once again no love for Dave W. Thompson, a guy who's been doing it for awhile now. And I wish that commercial space could do without NASA, but apart from things like comms birds, that's just not the case yet.

  • ||

    I LOVE Dana Rohrabacher.

    I think I'm falling in love with Katherine Mangu-Ward.

  • amagikid||

    Watch Herman Cain deliver the Tea Party State of the Union at www.TeaPartyExpress.org ! The live stream starts on Tuesday, January 24th at 10:30 EST/7:30 PST.

  • ||

    I've always had a hunch about Mars being a resource-Nirvana. See, it had all the geologic and hydrothermal processes and chemistry like on Earth. For billions of years. Then when the heat died so did those processes, the planet is in a way pretty much frozen in time.

    But no plate tectonics recycled everything all the time (geologically speaking). That's why the volcanoes and valleys got so big on that rock, nothing ever erased the chalkboard there so-to-speak.

    Mons Olympus is probably riddled with massive sulfide after massive sulfide piled miles into the sky. Think of the potential seams of gold on that ball in them thar hills.

    In 2049 there will be 49'ers again. And chances are like before many will be named Chang and Wang and Gomez in addition to Smiths and Sutters. The wagon will be different, as will be the trail, but it will still be a shitty months-long grind. But the gold will be calling. Like Twain said, history doesn't repeat but it sure will rhyme.

  • LK||

    "For decades space enthusiasts and libertarian dreamers have imagined a future where robust competition replaces top-down bureaucracy in the provision of extra-atmospheric travel."

    I fail to see how Elon Musk / SpaceX represents anything other than business as usual. Replace Boeing / Lockheed / ATK with SpaceX, you're still left with a company dependent on government contracts to transport government employees to a government facility (International Space Station) with no commercial value or customers other than the taxpayer.

  • ||

    Lockheed and Boeing have used the cost-plus model. Before their United Launch Alliance - the only 'private' orbital service offered in the US - the space program was outright socialized. The Space Shuttle was designed for maximum pork.

    SpaceX is a revolution because it's production model lowers costs and frees up human capital resources. That automatically brings companies like Lockheed and Boeing into competition mode - having to do what they've done, but at a private market friendly cost model. Pair this development with those companies like Bigelow aerospace, and you'll see some significant changes.

  • ||

    there is no safety this side
    of the grave, but there _is_
    enough water ice in the moon's
    polar regions to make it much
    easier for a colony to be self-
    supporting.

  • EBL||

    The Man Who Sold the Moon. I much prefer the libertarian space way than the big bloated NASA way.

  • EBL||

    Space exploration will take off when it becomes profitable...

  • ralph||

    Thanks for the article. For info on people using voluntary Libertarian tools on similar and other issues, please see http://​www.Libertarian-Internation​al.org , the non-partisan Libertarian International Organization

  • ralph||

    Thanks for the article. For info on people using voluntary Libertarian tools on similar and other issues, please see http://​www.Libertarian-Internation​al.org , the non-partisan Libertarian International Organization

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