Welcome to Quartz’s newsletter on the economic possibilities of the extra-terrestrial sphere. Please forward widely, and let me know what you think. This week: Space generational warfare, Virgin Galactic’s burn rate, and a mega-constellation bites the dust.
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If there’s a space equivalent to boomers versus millennials, it’s “old space” versus “new space.”
Bob Smith, the CEO of Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin, was asked about it on CNBC this week. “I’ve always hated that dichotomy because I think it’s putting the wrong kind of dynamics into the discussion,” he said.
Smith, a veteran of Honeywell’s space division (old space) is leading Blue Origin (new space) as it partners with Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman (old space) to build a moon lander, so there’s an element of diplomacy in his comment.
Yet though I reject generational conflict, there is value in thinking about why this distinction continues to bedevil the space industry. We are in the midst of a sea-change in space, and at the heart of it is whether most economic activity in orbit will be driven by markets and competition, or by government policy.
In the early days, new versus old space was a way to separate traditional military-industrial contractors from start-ups trying to build space-related businesses. Prodded by Reagan-era space commercialization plans, the AP printed this amazing lead in 1984: “If you want to launch a weather satellite into orbit or grow herpes vaccine in space you don’t have to rely on the federal government anymore.”
Unfortunately, those folks were ahead of their time, in terms of tech and the business opportunity, especially after the Challenger disaster led the US government to pull back on private space. But in the 2000s, the rise of venture-funded space firms and SpaceShipOne’s X-Prize victory led the distinction to re-emerge.
“Old Space (and this is still the dreamers talking) is slow, bureaucratic, government-directed, completely top-down,” the Washington Post’s Joel Achenbach wrote in 2013. “New Space is the opposite of all that. It’s wild. It’s commercial, bootstrapping, imaginative, right up to the point of being (and this is no longer the dreamers talking) delusional.”
Six years on, some of those definitions (and delusions) are breaking down, reflecting the success of new entrants and the changes they forced in the US space program. So far in 2019, Elon Musk’s SpaceX has flown as many government missions as United Launch Alliance, the Boeing-Lockheed joint venture. Meanwhile, Boeing is creating a new human-carrying spacecraft on a fixed-price service contract (new space) instead of building a NASA design for guaranteed profits (old space).
These lines will continue to blur, since the US government remains the largest spender in the space economy, at least until the space economy becomes more like the one we’re familiar with on Earth. Blue Origin, for example, wants to sell the public space tourism tickets on its suborbital New Shepard rocket in 2020 (new space) and also win a deeply opaque US Air Force contract to launch national security satellites (old space).
So here’s my crude shibboleth. Whenever I attend an event rolling out a new space product, whether a launch vehicle, a remote-sensing data service, or a communications satellite, I have one question: How much will it cost?
Old space hates this query; prices are negotiated behind closed doors. New space likes it; their products are designed to compete in the open market. Where does your favorite space firm fall?
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SPACE POWER RANKINGS WILL RETURN. Remember this Tory Bruno-endorsed hallucinatory vision? Ahead of our next installment, please share your nominations, honorable mentions and views on who wields power in spaceworld. Will there be prizes? Absolutely.
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There has been much talk about SpaceX’s new Starlink communications satellites being visible from Earth. Thanks to Don Davis, a space artist and photographer who shared this snap he took in Joshua Tree, California on Nov. 12, we can show you what they look like a day after they arrived in orbit:
Davis reports that the satellites had “spread out considerably since last night, they quickly faded into the Earth shadow after this photo was made.” The satellites are undergoing maneuvers right now that will increase their elevation by several hundred kilometers, a distance that should make them difficult to see without a telescope.
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So what about the astronomers?
More Starlink satellites mean more questions about how launching tens of thousands of new spacecraft will screw up astronomical observations. Alexandra Witze dug into the issue for Nature. The European Southern Observatory wasn’t worried, saying they forecast that if 27,000 new satellites are launched in the years ahead, their telescopes would lose just .8% of current exposure time. But the future may be different: The operators of the still-incomplete Large Synoptic Survey Telescope are still performing their forecast, based on 50,000 new satellites, but feared the loss of “significant” observation time. Radio telescope users are worried in the meantime about coordinating with satellite operators so that broadcasts from spacecraft to the ground don’t interfere with attempts to listen in on distant astronomical bodies.
Like tears in the rain.
Meanwhile, on Twitter: “How many more satellites is this world gonna put up there before they start interfering with each other will there be traffic lights last I heard there was like 17 billion pieces of garbage just waiting to fall to earth like rain.”
Mainly, I want you, too, to imagine 17 billion pieces of garbage falling to Earth like rain, which won’t happen unless the laws of physics are repealed. But space debris and the upcoming increase in new satellites promise thorny problems for space companies and government agencies alike. One issue is figuring out just how much space junk is up there—and our models may be all wrong. An experiment with the world’s largest gun reveals that we may be dangerously undercounting the amount of debris in orbit—meaning plans for mega-constellations might not be taking reality into account.
Virgin Galactic’s burn rate.
The human spaceflight company released its third quarter earnings for the first time as a public company. Virgin Galactic lost $138 million in the first nine months of 2019, which to be fair included expenses of a one-time move from Mojave, California to their operational site outside of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. (A little on the nose.) Reading the release generously, the company has just about $500 million in cash on hand after completing its public offering in October. That gives it the runway it needs to get into regular commercial operations next year, but the cost of generating revenue is going to rise, too, with marketing, administration and maintenance costs being added to the construction of new spacecraft. Mark your calendars for the annual earnings report in February 2020, when investors and reports will get a chance to talk to the management team.
Boeing’s $2 billion rocket.
If Virgin Galactic’s executives want to feel good about their financials, they can take a gander at the latest reporting on the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket being built by Boeing. Ars Technica’s Eric Berger picked up on a note from the White House that said individual rockets will cost $2 billion per flight, an extraordinarily high price even by rocket standards, after development costs reaching more than $14 billion this year. For comparison, the most powerful rocket on the market today, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, can carry about two-thirds of the SLS payload for less than one-tenth its cost.
Most analysts agree that only one or two of the new mega-constellations will actually make it into space operation—there is a lot of demand for connectivity, but not THAT much. In recent weeks, we’ve seen the first casualty, with the company LeoSat laying off workers after it apparently could not find enough capital to start making its network a reality. LeoSat did claim to have $2 billion worth of future business detailed in memorandums of understanding, which will no doubt be eagerly investigated by SpaceX, OneWeb, Amazon and others still vying to build orbital internet infrastructure.
This was issue 23 of our newsletter. Hope your week is out of this world! Please send your best photographs of Starlink satellites, metaphors for orbital debris disaster, tips and informed opinions to firstname.lastname@example.org.