The only guy more pissed than Elon Musk was Mark Zuckerberg.
On September 1, 2016, Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s (SpaceX’s) Falcon 9 two-stage rocket — which was to carry an Amos-6 communication satellite into space on behalf of Facebook Inc. (FB) — blew up on the launchpad at Cape Canaveral.
It was a setback for Musk’s SpaceX in particular, not to mention commercial spaceflight in general. And it temporarily interrupted Zuckerberg’s dream of providing connectivity to entrepreneurs and individuals in Africa.
Now for some good news…
On August 31, 2016, Aerojet Rocketdyne, a subsidiary of Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings Inc. (AJRD), completed a successful test of a critical safety feature of the Orion spacecraft that will power NASA’s planned mission to Mars.
The immediate stakes were certainly higher for the Falcon 9 launch, with its multimillion-dollar payload. The Aerojet test was, after all, just a 1.5-second firing of a jettison motor.
But it followed closely an August 18 Aerojet Rocketdyne development test of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) RS-25 engine, another one of the six critical parts of the rocket that will get us to Mars.
And it’s additional evidence that NASA’s intent to land on the Red Planet 19 years henceforth is actually doable.
And it’s additional evidence that NASA’s intent to land on the red planet 19 years henceforth is actually doable.
In the big picture, we must consider what matters more: Zuckerberg’s dream of providing internet service via satellite to millions of underserved Africans — certainly a worthy endeavor — or getting humankind to Mars by 2035, which may be the first step toward colonization of the cosmos.
What we can conclude, with more certainty than we can solve that temporal-versus-infinite dilemma, is that space exploration is an increasingly public-private project, with NASA’s long-term commitment augmented by efforts driven first by commercial concerns but at the same time supporting the broader mission.
It’s equally encouraging, in that “big picture” context, that SpaceX intends to launch another rocket in November. SpaceX has more than 70 launches planned, with more than $10 billion in commercial contracts on the line.
In addition to NASA’s public relations efforts, including social media engagement and releases of mission footage gathered from millions and billions of miles from Earth, success for commercial ventures such as SpaceX will bring the urgency of space exploration closer to home.
In a recent lecture at Brown University, Michael Genest, head of electrical power system mission planning and flight control expertise on the International Space Station since 1992, said, “The message space exploration sends to the rest of the human race is that when you get a bunch of people together who love what they do and put their talent together, you can do almost anything.”
(Almost anything… Zuckerberg may actually be wondering whether fellow billionaire Musk’s SpaceX can do anything at all. His Facebook post in the aftermath of the explosion was seething with read-between-the-corporate-press-release-speak-lines anger. “Deeply disappointed” he was.)
“The lifeblood of space exploration for now,” explained the longtime NASA pro, “is funding, and as long as we’re in the Lewis and Clark mode of exploration — government funded, expensive and therefore purely exploratory — we’re going to be vulnerable to political will.”
The reality is the American public was, even during the race-to-the-moon phase, skeptical of NASA and its billion-dollar budgets.
That’s despite the fact that we’ve consistently overestimated the tax dollars we’re actually spending on space exploration.
We think about a fifth to a quarter of the federal budget is devoted to NASA, when in reality spending on space topped out at 4.4% in 1966, hasn’t been above 1% since 1993 and now accounts for about 0.5% of all U.S. government spending.
NASA’s mission boils down to three basic ideals: “reach new heights,” “benefit all humankind” and “reveal the unknown.” Now more than ever, those are public-private projects.
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NASA’s forecast budget for fiscal 2017 is $19.3 billion, in line with fiscal 2016. That budget is up from $18.0 billion in 2015 and $17.6 billion in 2014. That’s against total estimated federal outlays of $4.218 trillion for fiscal 2017, $3.999 trillion for fiscal 2016, $3.759 trillion for fiscal 2015 and $3.506 trillion for fiscal 2014.
Genest’s presentation boiled down to the old phrase “no bucks, no Buck Rogers,” which was made famous by, and became space-junky cliché thanks to, Philip Kaufman’s cinematic adaption of Tom Wolfe’s nonfiction novel about the origins and the early days of the U.S. space program, The Right Stuff.
Genest suggests NASA “shift the center of gravity more to a more self-interested, commercial model. Then the things that motivate all commercial successes will motivate space flight.”
Establishing colonies on the moon… eventually putting humans on Mars… exploring other galaxies… we’re going to get there with the help of the imagination-opening adventures of guys like Musk… and Zuckerberg.
Aerojet Rocketdyne, a $1.2 billion New York Stock Exchange-traded small cap, is already established.
SpaceX is the first space “unicorn” — with venture funding of more than $1 billion that puts an overall valuation of approximately $10 billion on the company. But more are coming.
According to a January 2016 report by The Tauri Group, more venture capital ($1.8 billion) was invested in space in 2015 than in the prior 15 years combined.
Poised to take advantage of a global space industry worth about $335.3 billion (and growing) are startups such as Accion Systems, Rocket Lab, Terra Bella (formerly Skybox Imaging), Spire Global and Planet Labs.
Among The Tauri Group’s list of top prospects, The Climate Corp., which uses information gathered from satellites to provide weather information to farmers, has already been acquired by Monsanto Co. for $930 million in cash.
Planet Labs looks to be a formidable competitor for DigitalGlobe Inc., a provider of space imagery and data to defense and other private-sector clients.
NASA’s mission boils down to three basic ideals: “reach new heights,” “benefit all humankind” and “reveal the unknown.”
Now more than ever, those are public-private projects.
Old Things New
It’s rare for a movie to outdo the book upon which it’s based. The list is a short one, and it starts with Francis Ford Coppola’s cinematic interpretation of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather.
Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, a riff on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?, at the very least a highly structured homage to Homer’s The Odyssey, are also in the running.
And I’d include Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff in that group, as well.
Both the book and the movie get the history mostly right, at least in spirit.
Kaufman lets us see Chuck Yeager’s quiet, ironic heroism. (And in a cameo, we get to literally see Yeager.) We get to see the great pilot who embodies all that the title’s about break the sound barrier.
We get to see President Eisenhower crawl on all fours to plug in a recalcitrant film projector, the working of which will only further frustrate Ike and his subordinates as they try to figure out how to fight the Soviets in space, too.
The underrated humorist/astronaut Alan Shepard insults Mexicans and “goes” in his suit.
Gus Grissom is treated much less fairly than the historical record suggests he should be.
LBJ throws a fit because of John Glenn’s “housewife.”
“Gordo” is, for 34 hours at least, “the best pilot you ever saw.”
It’s all really about Yeager, though, and the sort of adventurous courage he shows even when he has to bail on the flight that serves as the film’s climax. Dude walks away from the crash scene, helmet burned to the side of his face, carrying his parachute.
And among many of the coolest things from that sequence, Levon Helm, the late, great drummer/vocalist for The Band, plays the “best friend” racing to pick him up.
Editorial Director, Wall Street Daily