Billionaires in Space: How Musk, Bezos, and Branson Could Save Humanity

Aerospace pioneer and SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan on the dawn of private space travel.


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The dynamism of the emerging private space industry, with its eye-popping aircraft designs and new approaches to launches, is rejuvenating excitement around space travel. Once monopolized by a budget-busting federal bureaucracy, space travel now has new leaders: wealthy philanthropists with boyhood dreams of spaceflight, and entrepreneurs who believe that they can make money selling tickets to the edge of space.

When Reason first declared the "dawn of private ventures in space" in 1979, we were admittedly off by a number of years. But in the last decade, billionaires such as Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos have been working through costly failures and lengthy experiments to arrive at workable approaches to commercial spaceflight. In 2019 investors poured a record $5.8 billion into hundreds of space ventures.

"Even though the industry, the world, all the primes, all the governments had concluded that it's impossible to reuse rocket boosters, [Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos] took enormous risks and try it anyway," says famed aerospace engineer Burt Rutan. "And you know, they all crashed at first and kept crashing. But wow, they figured it out! And now, by reusing rocket boosters, it changes the entire outlook on what's going to happen for the public as far as flying in space."

Rutan, who won the Reason Foundation's 2019 Savas Award for Privatization, designed SpaceShipOne, the first reusable manned craft to reach space not underwritten by the government. He sat down with Reason Editor-in-Chief Katherine Mangu-Ward to discuss private space flight, his renegade aircraft designs, and why it's important for mankind to leave Earth. Rutan, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and the rest of the SpaceShipOne team won the $10 million Ansari X Prize as the first non-government organization to launch a reusable manned spacecraft into space twice within two weeks.

"Elon Musk has said that that what he's doing on rocketry is a hundred times more important than curing cancer," says Rutan. "If you cure cancer, you save 14 percent of the people. If you can colonize another planet—and humans can learn to survive there—you can save all of us."

Edited and graphics by Meredith Bragg; cameras by Jim Epstein and Kevin Alexander.

Photos: Mark Greenberg/ZUMA Press/Newscom, ARCOCCHI GIULIO/SIPA/Newscom, Paul Hennessy/ZUMA Press/Newscom, SMG/ZUMA Press/Newscom, Blue Origin/Cover Images/Newscom, Yichuan Cao/ZUMA Press/Newscom, Ben Cawthra/Sipa USA/Newscom

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  1. If a handful of billionaires are going to save our species, surely’s benefactor Charles Koch would be part of that heroic group.


    1. Sarah Y. James paycheck was for 1500 dollars… All i did was simple online work from comfort at home for 3-4 hours/day that I got from this agency I discovered over the internet and they paid me for it 95 bucks every hour… More Details

  2. But who will defend the America’s Cup if Rutan goes to join the aliens he credits with building the Pyramids ?

  3. Please, more of these, KMW. Good stuff.

    One company not mentioned, Rocket Lab, seems well on their way to accomplishing reusability of orbital rocket boosters by returning them via parachute and catching them mid-air with a helicopter.

    I hope the new-space players can keep momentum going (or other actors enter the arena) before government entanglement inevitably drags things to a near stand still of jobs programs.

    1. Even on a parachute, that’s a lot of falling mass to catch with a helicopter. Even a relatively small first stage would have a mass of 5000-8000 kg (11k-17k lb).

      Also, to catch that with a helicopter would mean that the chute lines have to be clear of the rotors, which would either require a long boom attached solidly to the chopper airframe or for the copter to be above the chute and match its sink rate in a more or less blind maneuver for the pilot (assuming civilian-grade cockpit systems). Either version of that would be highly dangerous to attempt and be extremely difficult (if not physically impossible) to execute successfully.

      1. They’ve already successfully tested helicopter capture via drop tests.

        According to the CEO, Peter Beck, the hardest part was making iterative changes to the booster to allow it to survive the forces/temperatures of reentry.

        1. Did they do that with their “Electron” first stage? They don’t give detailed stage-by-stage dimensions for it other than diameter (which is 1.2m compared to the 5m diameter of a D4/A5 and 3.7m diameter of the F9), but it looks like the first stage is probably about 10-12m long (since the full vehicle is 17m) including the “power pack” and the “interstage” housing for the stage 2 nozzle, and their liftoff thrust is about 5% of what the engine on the D4 puts out. This appears to be a fine rocket for relatively small payloads, but isn’t going to have the capacity to be anywhere near what would be needed as a “workhorse” for manned interplanetary missions. This concept looks workable for a very small rocket, but isn’t very scalable unless we build some much bigger helicopters.

          Their entire multi-stage rocket (including upper stage and payload fairing) is less than half the length of a D4/A5 first stage booster core, just under 25% if its diameter and including fuel and payload weighs less than what a D4 heavy can launch into GEO. The difference between catching something the size of the Electron, and catching something like a D4/A5 first stage would be on the level of the difference between stopping a Chevy Aveo and stopping a loaded 18-wheeler. An empty F9 first stage has a mass of just over 25000 kg, while a fully fueled Electron with a max weight payload is coming in at 13000 kg (which is likely to be at least 2/3 fuel and 10-15% upper stage/fairing which isn’t being caught in this maneuver). A Chinook twin-rotor helicopter can carry about 8000 lb payload on a sling hoist and is unquestionably far larger than the helicopter that rocket lab is using in their test, but that’s less than 25% of the mass of the Falcon 9 and doesn’t include the complicating factor of catching that mass and arresting its fall on a parachute.

          1. Yeah, Electron is a small sat launcher with a max SSO payload of somewhere around 500 lbs. I wasn’t implying the technology would be scalable. In fact, powered return and landings (a la Spacex/Blue Origin) is probably preferable in most ways, but it’s not really possible with a smaller launch vehicle due to propellant:dry mass ratios.

  4. yeah but would you introduce any of those weirdos to your daughter?

    1. Just imagine the Christmas presents from your son-in-law!

      1. On the first day of Christmas
        Jared gave Ivanka’s dad
        A Subpoena his father
        Wished he’d never had

  5. “If you cure cancer, you save 14 percent of the people. If you can colonize another planet—and humans can learn to survive there—you can save all of us.”

    Except for the 14% of people who died of cancer, of course.

    1. What about the 14% that get cancer on Mars?

  6. When Reason first declared the “dawn of private ventures in space” in 1979, we were admittedly off by a number of years.

    Still more accurate than predictions of “the libertarian moment.”

  7. Were not going to another planet any time soon or maybe ever. There is no place in this solar system capable of supporting human life except earth. Space is just to big. We would need to travel far beyond light speed to make it possible. We can get in orbit. Go to the moon, which is a waste of money. Mabey send some people to Mars and back, maybe, if they live. That is about all.

    1. “Of what use is a newborn baby?” was Benjamin Franklin’s retort to the question “What good is it?” asked by a witness to an early balloon flight.

      I agree, America, as a nation, with NASA running the show is not going anywhere with humans. That is mostly a lack of political courage and failure to evangelize the public. However, these guys think they can make a buck at it, and if they do, then maybe even the moon might be useful for something besides tides and calendars.

      As to a faster than light drive, eh, maybe yes, maybe no. I’m not a physicist, and I doubt you are either. Current thinking is “no”. But we’ve been there before; not with as much science behind it, but imagine how primitive we may look to someone a millenium from now.

      1. As to a faster than light drive, eh, maybe yes, maybe no. I’m not a physicist, and I doubt you are either. Current thinking is “no”. But we’ve been there before; not with as much science behind it, but imagine how primitive we may look to someone a millenium from now.

        I think the idea that we’ll just magically develop the ability to travel at or faster than light all at once is more fantastic. There’s a saying that supposedly went around NASA that went:
        If God had intended for us to leave Earth, he would’ve given us the moon; if He had intended for Man to live somewhere else he would’ve given us Mars and Venus….

        We won’t develop FTL transportation overnight. It will be a fractional progression to FTL over the course of a century or more (just like the last century). At light speed, the trip to Mars is just under 15 min., at 1/10th it’s 2 hours, at 1/100th it’s 20 hours. When Mars is just 20 hours away, places like Europa and Venus will be eminently more reachable.

        1. One the span of less than one lifetime we have gone from horse drawn carriages to landing on the moon.

        2. There is not the slightest hint of a suggestion in all of physics that FTL travel is possible. Indeed, it appears to be logically precluded by physics as we know it.

          FTL travel is a logical paradox, it’s just that most people don’t know enough physics to understand that the idea is actually logically incoherent.

    2. Incorrect. Sorta.

      The upper portion of Venus’ atmosphere is livable by unaided human standards (and the technology to stably inhabit an upper atmosphere predates rocketry). Additionally, the moons Europa and Enceladus are water abundant and could arguably survived so long as we deliver sufficient thermal material. I don’t disagree that we aren’t going anytime soon, and I wouldn’t disagree that the first inhabitants of such places wouldn’t be what we identify as human, but the idea that we, as a race will never live anywhere else in our solar system seems like a fundamental misunderstanding of humans and nature.

      I would expect a city on a/the sea floor before I’d say any other colonization were imminent though. It seems a bit idiotic to say you can survive the climes of Mars millions of miles away en masse while surviving the climes of our oceans barely thousands of miles away is too challenging.

      1. “I would expect a city on a/the sea floor before I’d say any other colonization were imminent though.”

        If you want to live in a challenging environment, what’s better than Antarctica? There you can live on solid land and breathe fresh, clean air. There are volcanic energy sources. And there is no need for rockets to get there. There are even living food sources native to the place: seals, penguins, fish, seaweed and lichen. If you go to Mars, you will find none of that. The atmosphere is poison and the lack of gravity will play havoc on the human body.

        1. I think underwater creates a ‘hull breaches, we all die’ axiom that Antartica doesn’t but, right. The fact that we’re talking about colonizing Mars when you can count the number of people born on Antarctica on two hands should clearly elucidate to people how big our eyes are relative to our mouth when it comes to colonizing the solar system.

          I think the reaction to COVID has thoroughly demonstrated how poorly prepared we are socially, from both the left and the right, for such endeavors.

          1. you can count the number of people born on Antarctica on two hands

            My bad, the actual number is 11, so two hands and a foot.

          2. “The fact that we’re talking about colonizing Mars when you can count the number of people born on Antarctica on two hands should clearly elucidate to people how” a squad of marines would show up to evict you if you tried colonizing Antarctica.

            We’d have already colonized Antarctica if there wasn’t that pesky treaty. But there is.

        2. “The upper portion of Venus’ atmosphere is livable by unaided human standards”

          That depends on whether or not you can find humans who breath CO2 laced with sulfuric acid.

          Seriously, I know what you mean: Right pressure, temperature, gravity, and radiation, and the upper atmosphere even circulates around the planet in one day. And breathable air is a lifting gas in CO2, so people could live inside balloons quite easily. Venus IS a pretty good candidate for colonization. Just watch that first step.

  8. I wasn’t aware that humanity needed saving….

    1. On a long enough timeline the survival rate of everyone [and everything] goes to zero.

    2. If you don’t need saved, how can you have a Messiah?

      1. Government Almighty is our New Savoir! All Hail!

        Scienfoology Song… GAWD = Government Almighty’s Wrath Delivers

        Government loves me, This I know,
        For the Government tells me so,
        Little ones to GAWD belong,
        We are weak, but GAWD is strong!
        Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
        Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
        Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
        My Nannies tell me so!

        GAWD does love me, yes indeed,
        Keeps me safe, and gives me feed,
        Shelters me from bad drugs and weed,
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        Our protectors, they will be,
        FBI, TSA, and FDA,
        With us, astride us, in every way!
        Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
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    3. It won’t happen soon enough that we can really even predict what “humanity” will look like at the time (or even still exist in any meaningful form), but at some point the sun will “go nova” and/or collapse in a way that will radically alter its output (and thereby the natural environment on all of the planets orbiting it).

      Just because nobody that can or will ever read this will see it happen doesn’t make it any less inevitable to happen at some point.

  9. While space flight is certainly doable, living on another planet is basically science fiction. We can get there but that’s about it.

    1. Well yeah. Everyone knows they will fall off the edge.

  10. I have been reading Science Fiction since the 60s. I watched Apollo go to the Moon and I continue to follow space exploration. The idea that we can leave Earth and set up house somewhere elegies hundreds of years away if ever. The huge cost of putting one pound or kilogram in to Space should clue you in to the facts. We live in a world where Countries are in debt to their eyeballs, most of the world lives on less than ten dollars a day and we have starving people around the world who don,t even have clean water or electricity. These are VANITY PROJECTS… to bad these so called smart people cannot figure out how to fix terrestrial problems with all that money.

    1. These are two different classes of problem and your inability to distinguish them is part makes them worse/unsolvable.

      I can define when a rocket has landed on Mars. It’s well-defined how long and how much fuel it takes to get there. Conversely, exactly what daily/hourly wage should most of the world be living on? If they don’t have clean water or electricity, should they be allowed to live there like that? At $10/d without electricity or clean water, should they reproduce?

      It’s one thing to say that we can’t run because we can’t walk, it’s another (idiotic) thing to say that we can’t run because some people haven’t learned to use chopsticks.

      1. “These are two different classes of problem”

        There is only one problem: sustaining life. We still have to decide how much water to send with the Martian explorers, how much we expect them to supply through their own efforts, how clean their water should be, their role in cleaning it. Same questions have to be answered about food, whether on Mars or Earth.

        1. There is only one problem: sustaining life.

          No, there’s not. As foolish as it is to act like we’ll be colonizing Mars in the next 5 yrs.; it’s just as idiotic to act like we aren’t past the phase of simply trying to sustain human life. We can easily sustain human life, even exceedingly fragile examples of it, even in exceedingly hostile environments.

          What we can’t do is advance human civilization in places where the people refuse or actively thwart attempts to advance. Even if we set aside the fact that it is/would be/has been tremendously costly, there’s a significant moral question as to whether we should or are obligated to. Again, pretty simple example, what exact daily wage *should* humans be living on?

          1. Average wage? Depends. I imagine the cost of living will be higher on Mars than here at home.

            I think we are morally obligated to supply astronauts with enough food and water to see them through the mission, at least. What makes them more deserving than those stuck on Earth?

  11. I’ve always thought once we have the tech to set up shop on Mars we could just build something in space to live in. Once you go up the gravity well why go back down?

    1. Once you go up the gravity well why go back down?

      Because at the bottom of all the gravity wells is where all the stuff is. Lagrangian points are a nice place to visit…

  12. Every one of these toads gets cash from the government tit. I have no interest in their thoughts on how technocrats will run things. Because I have seen Amazon’s warehouses. Yeah like that. These fuckers are vampires.

    1. I mean, you’re not completely wrong regarding them being on the government teat. However, they’re suckling a lot less of that taxpayer milk to do a given job than entrenched government contractors. Meanwhile, they’re driving down launch costs industry-wide and bringing creative destruction back into the space sector. Also, they’re risking loads of their own and private investor capital on research, development, and commercial services.

      I’ll simultaneously root for advances from the private sector and reductions in public spending.

      1. Most of what players like SpaceX are doing to reduce launch costs has to do with not working to a gov’t spec.

        Delta 4/Atlas V were designed to run on liquid hydrogen (a cryogenic liquid that’s stored at -423F) propellant in order to meet a spec that originated from the Clinton administration (probably courtesy of Al Gore) and was intended to make the rockets more “green” since the combustion exhaust is pretty much just water vapor, although the processes involved in producing large quantities of LH2 probably produces plenty of bad emissions and by-products. Falcon 9 burns Kerosene and emits a mix of mostly CO2 and H2O, but is far easier and cheaper to produce, transport, store and handle. The difference in primary propellant alone could account for a huge portion of the cost differential between launching on F9 and launching on a rocket that came from a government effort to reduce the cost of getting stuff into orbit (which was the primary purpose of the EELV project that produced D4 and A5).

        1. Atlas first stages use rocket grade kerosene, same as falcon rockets. Atlas second stage and all Delta stages use hydrogen. This has everything to do with specific impulse, not arbitrary mandates. There’s trade-offs with any type of rocket fuel. Hydrogen is more efficient and cleaner burning (which was important for the reusable STS engines, which burn fuel rich), but is less dense and is handled at much colder temps. Kerosene has been a fuel staple in the launch industry for many years.

          Though, you’re right that Spacex was able to cut costs so drastically due to changes in process engineering/manufacturing.

  13. Space travel will not save humanity. Say we invented a faster than light spaceship like the Galaxy Class featured in Star Trek. It can carry about 5 thousand people. At a launch rate of one per week that would be 260 thousand people per year which means that to move 7.5 billion people would take about 30 thousand years. What will save humanity is not freedom from death but freedom from dependence on fearless leaders whether private or public. The liberation of the human spirit will happen through the efforts of fascistic elites businessmen or politician.

    1. the last sentence should read: The liberation of the human spirit will NOT happen through the efforts of fascistic elites businessmen or politician

    2. This is a/the good point.

      Our response to COVID should demonstrate how utterly incapable we are as a species at choosing leaders who can balance or respect personal liberty and command authority.

      Something like colonizing Mars is going to require a dedicated, multi-generational plan and time tables. There can and will be no panicked shut downs because people 65 and older are dying at above-average rates. Any unplanned shut downs will be done with the specific aim of reopening ASAP. There will be, of course, time to figure out best courses of action, but mistakes that put people out of jobs while >50K people still die and imaginary curves get flattened are recipes for catastrophic failure.

      1. “Something like colonizing Mars is going to require a dedicated, multi-generational plan and time tables.”

        We’re talking total nanny state.

        1. We’re talking total nanny state.

          Only for unimaginative idiots. Given the current crop of private space moguls it looks to be about as ‘nanny state’ as colonialism, homesteading, or the gold rush… assuming we don’t elect reactionary, narrow-minded, backwards-thinking morons.

          1. Try burning your trash in a Martian airlock. You’ll have space-suited nannies coming down on you like a ton of bricks. That’s heavy even on Mars.

  14. Holy fuck! I sci/tech piece on Reason that’s not about climate doom or transhumanist bullshit? I may faint.

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