Magazine | October 10, 2016, Issue

The Next Space Age

An Atlas V rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, September 8, 2016. (Photo: NASA via Getty/Joel Kowsky)
As private spaceflight advances, Washington must reconsider its role

Merritt Island, Fla. — As a child, I was in love with America. From England, everything about the place just seemed marvelous. America was where the movies were set. It was where all the good roller coasters had been installed. It had cities with skyscrapers with romantic names: the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the TransAmerica. Elvis had been an American, as had John Wayne. Marilyn Monroe, too. The Americans — or so I thought — had invented all of the fun stuff: Superman, Coca-Cola, denim jeans, ten-pin bowling. Americans were rich, and happy, and on top of the world. Their president was a film star, with a welcome-to-Disneyland voice. And above all — above absolutely everything else — Americans had been to the moon.

An old joke has it that there are two sorts of countries: “those that use the metric system, and those that have put a man on the moon.” Today, this is typically told with an ironic, self-conscious faux-bombast — as a critical, cosmopolitan nod toward the jingoism of old. But here’s the thing: It’s true. It is difficult to overstate just how substantial a PR victory the Apollo program was for the United States, and tough to relay to the inured just how exceptional its space program made the country look from the outside. As a boy, I would watch the nightly news in wide-eyed wonder as the Space Shuttle blasted off. I proudly carried around my Neil Armstrong lunchbox. I knew by heart the famous, if imprecisely delivered, line: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” In America, they got things done.

Specifically who “they” were didn’t seem to matter a great deal back then. But, in hindsight, one can’t help but notice that, as impressive and romantic as the NASA-led missions of my youth were, they in no way resembled the space-based visions that had set the cultural tone. Delve into the popular cartoons of the Victorian era and the Space Age — as well as the endless supply of planet-filled movies that followed 1977’s Star Wars — and you will see the universe cast as a bustling frontier, more akin to the Oregon Trail than to Mount Everest. In The Jetsons, as in Jules Verne’s Rocket to the Moon and Ridley Scott’s Alien, the cosmos is conquered not by rare, government-led forays, but by relentless commercial activity — by P. T. Barnum rather than John F. Kennedy. In this idealized view, passengers and freight are conveyed upward by a host of competing companies that have turned the void above into a business opportunity, and space — far from becoming an isolated, Kubrickian eccentricity — resembles a translated version of Earth. Had you asked a child in 1964 where an astronaut would stay when “up there,” he wouldn’t have said, “The space station”; he’d have said, “The Hilton.”

Of course, this vision has not yet come to pass. On the contrary: It has been politicians, not entrepreneurs, who have taken the lead above the clouds, often as part of broader military or diplomatic strategies. It was a government that launched the first satellite; a government that sent the first man into space; a government that put men on the moon. The International Space Station is a joint project of states: the U.S., Canada, Russia, Japan, and the 22 members of the European Space Agency. For a while, at least, this made sense; from a standing start, the development of space-bound vehicles proved an extremely costly and highly risky proposition that did not lend itself well to market forces. Today, though, things are different. Today, America stands on the cusp of a new and exciting era of commercial spaceflight — of a future, that is, that might finally resemble the imaginings of old. If our governments are willing to recognize that — and to intelligently get out of the way — almost anything seems possible.

At the Kennedy Space Center, a few miles from Central Florida’s famous Cocoa Beach, there are ubiquitous signs of life. That may come as a surprise. Kennedy has been through a rough time of late. In 2011, in the middle of the Great Recession, the much-maligned Space Shuttle program was put to bed, along with the 9,000 high-paying jobs that it sustained. NASA’s budget, too, has atrophied. In 1966, at the height of the Apollo effort, NASA was eating up 4.5 percent of the federal budget. By 1975, that number was 1 percent; by 2000 it was 0.75 percent; and by 2010 it was 0.5 percent. There are no plans to increase it.

And yet, everywhere I am taken, I see development, construction, activity, restoration. Suddenly, everybody wants to be a rocketeer. In one corner of the 147,000-acre site, Elon Musk’s SpaceX is learning to reuse its spacecraft, the better to cut costs for its clients. In another, Boeing and Lockheed Martin are testing a secret Defense Department satellite. And, on the far outskirts, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is getting in on the action. Thanks to the work NASA has already done at the site, Kennedy boasts an enviable infrastructure base that is just yearning to be used, and thanks to a dramatic increase in attention to space’s commercial possibilities, it looks as if it will be. “That will be a satellite-production facility,” I am told as we enter a construction site near the main gate. “Once the delivery mechanisms are cheap enough, the demand is going to explode.”

It’s not just rockets. Like so much else at Kennedy, the Shuttle Landing Facility, a 17,000-by-400-foot super-runway that used to host Shuttle landings but now lies mostly dormant, is being revamped. “There are a lot of potential clients for an asset such as this,” says Jimmy Moffitt, the airfield manager. “But only once some changes have been made.”

Those changes will include the construction of a taxiway, the installation of an airside ramp, and the introduction of a suite of hangars. At present, the strip has a few unconventional clients: NASCAR and Corvette have used it for the straight-line testing of supercars; MoonExpress has set up rocks at one end, to see how well robots can avoid debris; and both Virgin Atlantic and Zero Gravity Corp. have made ample use of the runway. But, if business is to boom, the facility will need to be adapted more dramatically, from a bespoke component into a commercial utility. The runway, in other words, will need to become an airport.

The changes at the Shuttle Landing Facility — and a host of other transformations being made at the base — neatly illustrate the challenge NASA faces. For all of its history, both the Kennedy Space Center and its sister Air Force station were set up for one client only: the government. In consequence, it is ill suited to host the free-market competition that is making the future of space travel so bright. Were Kennedy being designed today, its infrastructure would look dramatically different. Back in 1969, it did not matter that the base’s nitrogen and helium pipelines could accommodate only one launch at a time, because NASA planned only one launch at a time. But now, in an age of commercial rivalries, such a choke point is problematic. How, critics ask, should NASA proceed? Should it spend money improving its facilities so that private companies can make a profit? Should it pick winners and losers in accordance with its preferred vision for the future? And how should it behave when the government has a need that conflicts with commerce?

Indeed, quite how NASA should get away from its dirigiste model is the topic of a fierce debate. Some within the spacefaring community rather like the idea of the federal government’s owning and operating a commercial spaceport, and they point to the national-security needs that such an arrangement would fill. Others, generally the more commercially minded, believe that this approach would yield a long-term disaster for the United States and a boon to its international rivals. They point to the airline industry as an example of how to manage change. Until 1986, they note, both Washington Dulles and Washington National airports were owned and operated by the federal government. But as the demand for air travel increased — and as Washington, D.C., became a more attractive destination — that arrangement became unsustainable. (Why? Imagine if your business had to run all of its decisions through Congress.) And so, accepting that the times had changed, the Reagan administration spearheaded the transfer of the two facilities to an outside group, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. Nobody has ever looked back.

Critics of the status quo ask why this cannot be done with NASA’s Florida assets, too. Could the federal government not hand Kennedy over to an independent authority? Could it not use an enhanced-use lease to transfer power to the major stakeholders? At the very least, could Congress not move from owner to regulator? After all, the site already is playing host to a variety of experiments. The launch I have come to Florida to watch is being run directly by NASA. But the Atlas V rocket NASA is using was built by ULA, a joint project of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, and its launchpad and maintenance buildings are owned by the state of Florida and leased to all comers. In addition, Kennedy has just put in a new launchpad, 39C, which was specifically intended to encourage startup companies that work with small-class payloads. How difficult would it be, one wonders, to privatize the whole thing?

Many in Florida are hoping that the answer is “Not very.” Last year, much to the state’s horror, an impatient Elon Musk moved some of his operations to a private site in Brownsville, Texas, where, freed from the clutches of both NASA and the Air Force, he will be able to limit his interactions with the government and to plan his operations without jostling for permission. Because the land in Texas is privately owned, SpaceX needs only FAA approval come launch time. And, because it is sharing the site with nobody else, SpaceX’s engineers can set their schedules without reference to their competitors. For Kennedy, which has been the center of America’s space program for six decades, Musk’s move has been both a wake-up call and a reminder that, with Texas, California, and Georgia all hoping to join the fray, the future of Florida’s space industry is by no means guaranteed.

Ensuring that others do not follow Musk out of the state is a priority for Florida’s government. In 2006, the state legislature set up a special economic-development agency, Space Florida, and tasked it with attracting investment and encouraging private partnerships. Under the group’s leadership, the Shuttle Landing Facility is being transformed; the Kennedy Space Center has diversified away from just launches and into manufacturing; and Florida’s movers and shakers have taken steps to ensure that the federal government is one of its customers rather than its only customer.

For Dale Ketcham, Space Florida’s chief of strategic alliances, these initiatives are not a departure so much as an evolution. “As a child I used to play on Cocoa Beach,” he tells me as we drive around the site. “In one photo of me, you can see John Glenn in the background.” Ketcham has seen it all: the launch of Apollo 11, the Challenger explosion, the early years, when nothing seemed to work. “The landing on the moon was my childhood,” he says. “Only the federal government could do that. My career since has been participating in the NASA transition to more of an operations model, the merits of which are debatable. Fortunately, I’ll end my career being a part of the commercialization of the space marketplace. I can be proud, take comfort, and feel excited about that future.”

In the evening, I return to Kennedy to watch the launch of Osiris Rex, a NASA-funded, ULA-fulfilled mission to an asteroid named “Bennu.” I am, in truth, a little nervous. In 1987, while on vacation in Florida, my family obtained tickets to a launch of the Space Shuttle, only to see bad weather render them void. To us, the cancellation had been inexplicable; how were those perfect skies “inclement”? But they were, and NASA postponed the launch until after we’d left the area. I was crushed.

Happily, lightning does not strike twice. An hour or so before zero-hour, a classic-sounding voice begins a desultory countdown over the loudspeakers (“T minus fifty-nine minutes,” and all that); gradually, the viewing area on the waterfront fills up with cameras and enthusiasts; and then, after an eerie silence and some nervous mumbling, it happens.

We hear it before we see it. At first, a throat clearing: distant, thin, unsure. Then, the bass. And, finally, the lion’s roar. Cheers, whoops, hollers, and . . . there it was, flanked by a bed of smoke, rising slowly above the tree line. Twenty-nine years later, I have finally seen a launch.

As I walk back to my car, a rebellious thought pops into my head: Will my son appreciate this as much as I did? And, more important, should he? Much of the excitement of what I have just seen derives from its scarcity. But what will happen when rocket launches are quotidian affairs? In the 1950s, my father used to stand and watch the planes take off from Singapore airport. Today, nobody would bother. When I, too, am old and gray, will I look at my children knowingly and tell them that before the market took over, before the prices dropped, and before every other star was a satellite making its rounds, “I was there,” and it was magnificent?

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