The New Space Race
The space race is on. But forget the 1960s, with the cosmos providing a proxy for geo-political machinations; this time, it’s a no-holds-barred contest to make space a viable commercial enterprise.
The latest salvo, the successful launch on February 6 of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, one of the most powerful rockets ever built, felt like a throwback to the space age’s thrill—some 100,000 spectators flocked to the launch from the same pad at Cape Canaveral where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin blasted off to the moon. (“We want a space race,” SpaceX founder Elon Musk asserted after the launch. “Space races are exciting.”) Yet government heavyweights and billionaires like Musk and Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos aren’t the only ones playing this field. Advances in technology have turned space into an appealing sector for entrepreneurs keen to make access to space cheaper and easier than ever.
And that means that innovation is as likely to happen in Brooklyn as it is in Pasadena. Newlab member Honeybee Robotics, founded on the Lower East Side in 1983, has long contributed to NASA missions, including devising key robotic tools for the Mars missions. Meanwhile, a new company, Launcher, aims to exploit an emerging market for lower-cost rocket launches.
The space conversation can often be dominated by grand narratives centered on human exploration—sending astronauts back to the moon, for instance, or colonizing Mars. But, notes Jason Herman, the vice president of Honeybee’s Advanced Robotics Group, “It’s likely not possible to have an Apollo-style Mars mission where we launch astronauts directly to the surface of Mars to explore.” Sending people to Mars (and beyond) will require in-space or on-surface stepping stones such as refueling depots.
Newlab member Honeybee Robotics, founded by Stephen Gorevan, has a long history of working with NASA. One of the projects currently underway for Honeybee’s robotics team is tackling the logistical hurdles—the restrictions of cost and weight—of building infrastructure in space.
To that end, one of the projects currently underway for Honeybee’s robotics team is tackling the logistical hurdles—the restrictions of cost and weight—of building infrastructure in space. By using robots to form an in-orbit assembly team, components of large structures could be carried into orbit individually and fitted together—like a celestial Erector Set. This way, “you can create large systems that traditionally you couldn’t,” Herman says.
Jason Herman, the VP of Honeybee’s Advanced Robotics Group, is skeptical of the idea of an “Apollo-style Mars mission where we launch astronauts directly to the surface of Mars.” By using robots to form an in-orbit assembly team, components of large structures could be carried into orbit individually and fitted together—like a celestial Erector Set. (Seen here is Honeybee’s Planetary Deep Drill at a test facility in the California desert.)
Creating large-scale infrastructure to support exploration is one side of the space conundrum; managing the proliferation of tiny satellites that can do everything from taking photos of Earth to collecting data for GPS to providing satellite internet is another. Space, with its high-cost threshold—both in money and expertise—was long restricted to government agencies with multibillion-dollar budgets, which could build heavy satellites and the huge rockets required to propel them through Earth’s atmosphere. (Since the launch of Sputnik, in 1957, only 11 countries have developed their own orbital launch systems.)
But recent advances in technology, from miniaturization to 3-D printing to the distribution of knowledge over the internet, have lowered that threshold, and satellites are now regularly smaller than a toaster. Meanwhile, Earthlings’ appetite for data and computing power has only become more voracious. For satellite startups looking to place hundreds or thousands of small satellites into orbit, the question is: how to get them up there cost-effectively?
Into this gap enters Launcher, helmed by Max Haot, who, like Musk and Bezos, cut his entrepreneurial teeth on the internet, as a founder of Livestream. Formed last May, Launcher aims to achieve commercial operation within 10 years. Launcher can afford to take the long view because the market for launch operations is poised for explosive growth.
“It used to be that if you wanted to start a satellite company, you needed $100 million to launch it, and $200 million to manufacture a single satellite. Your company needed to be funded by billions of dollars,” Max Haot, the founder of Launcher, says. “But now we’re starting to see that with $10 million you can launch a few satellites into low Earth orbit. Last year, about 300 microsatellites were sent into orbit, the year before that there were 100. In 10 years it could be 10,000.”
As Haot points out, until recently the only way companies could get microsatellites into orbit was to piggyback on a large rocket, but “small satellite companies can’t determine where it goes or when it goes.” What’s more, while SpaceX has dramatically lowered the cost of a launch, the pricing for its rockets remains around $60 million. A smaller rocket like those planned by
Launcher would cost closer to $5 million—so the portion any single company would pay for its own ride would be significantly less. For Launcher, the possibilities—and risks—have a clear analogy: “It’s like being back in 1997,” Haot says. “You couldn’t predict then what would happen with the internet.”
Photography by Rich Gilligan. This article was originally published in Tech Fancy Issue 6: Space Off