The Real Space Race

18 November 2023

The Real Space Race

By Gwynne Dyer

The upside of Elon Musk is that he is a genius who has done useful things for the human race. He brought the idea of electric vehicles from harmless fringe tinkering to commercial mass production, and he may yet bring the cost of space flight down a thousandfold and get the human race out into the Solar system for good.

Musk’s downside is that he is a political idiot with the impulse control of a ten-year-old boy. (Ten-year-old girls are a bit better at that, but Elon is definitely a boy.) So the big question is whether he gets the Starship/Super Heavy system up and running before his random political enthusiasms drive him into bankruptcy.

That’s the real space race, between Musk A and Musk B.

It took about eight years from the Tesla IPO in 2010 to 5,000 vehicles per week off Misk’s first production line in 2018.

Space X’s first multi-stage rocket, the Falcon 9, reached orbit in 2012. Let’s say twice as long – 2028 – for the technically more challenging goal of getting fully functional Starships into serial production.

That’s how long Musk has to stay alive and solvent in order to carry the Starship project to a point where it can continue in the hands of others even if he goes broke as the result of some reckless financial venture like ‘X, formerly known as ‘Twitter’. Five more years.

His continued presence at the head of Space X is necessary because the development project that has got him this far involves learning by doing. That involves lots of failures in the form of spectacular explosions and ‘rapid unscheduled disassemblies’ in the course of reaching the goal.

Compared to the traditional government-financed rockets built by NASA and its Russian and Chinese rivals, this approach works out faster and cheaper in the end. But there’s a very high burn rate of cash until success is achieved, and that required either boundless cash or boundless investor confidence (same thing, really) in the developer.

Musk has managed to create and maintain that confidence and the cash keeps flowing, but it’s still a high-risk way of working. One really bad crash that involved a large loss of human life (improbable but always possible) could bring him down. So could a bankruptcy elsewhere in his empire, most likely in Twitter. (Sorry, ‘X’)

How could that happen? Musk is the richest man in the world, and the $44 billion purchase price for Twitter was less than a quarter of his net worth. Moreover, it was a ‘leveraged by-out’, so the $13 billion in bank loans that was involved is owed by ‘X’, not by him personally.

However, a lot of influential people would like to see Musk go under (practically everybody he’s ever worked with, by some accounts), and when confidence goes, it goes very fast. Cross-infection is possible.

Why should we even care? Because getting Starship/Super Heavy onto the market in multiple copies is important. It will revolutionise everything to do with space flight, because the cost of getting anything into orbit will drop from $60,000 (NASA’s Space Launch System) to $10 a kilo (Musk’s Starship).

If Musk is over-promising and the real cost is ten times higher than that, it would still be a thousandfold cut in the cost of lifting a kilo of anything to low-earth orbit.

So if you want to send human settlers to Mars (Musk’s dream), this is the vehicle that could take them there. Sooner and of more practical importance, you can build immense arrays of solar panels that harvest perpetual sunlight in space and beam it down to Earth for energy.

You can start mining minerals that are rare on Earth but may be plentiful on the Moon and various asteroids. You can build orbital factories that exploit zero gravity for various chemical and pharmaceutical processes. And there’s no pollution involved, because the fuel used is just methane, which burns cleanly with oxygen leaving only water behind.

You can do all sorts of things we hadn’t even taken seriously before, because at $10-$100 per kilo to orbit it all becomes affordable, including refueling in orbit for more distant destinations.

What makes Musk so important for that?

We could have had all this technology by the mid-1980s, but the two countries then financing space flight, the US and the Soviet Union, lost interest after the US won the race to the Moon and détente de-escalated the Cold War.

Until and unless space flight becomes a widespread and commercially viable business, a shift in the political winds could stall it again. That is what makes Musk the indispensable man for the moment. Without him the momentum could easily be lost again.

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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“How…possible”)