Welcome to Quartz’s newsletter on the economic possibilities of the extraterrestrial sphere. Please forward widely, and let me know what you think. This week: A new age of private exploration, ViaSat’s big sale, and Firefly’s first flight.
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NASA certainly got what it ordered from SpaceX in the Dragon spacecraft. Yesterday, the vehicle’s fifth mission for the space agency carried four astronauts to orbit, including the first Russian astronaut to depart from the US since the days of the Space Shuttle.
But we’re only just beginning to see what it means for a private company to have a comparatively affordable spacecraft on the market.
We got a hint last week, when NASA announced that it would study the feasibility of a privately led and funded mission that would use a Dragon to boost the Hubble space telescope to a higher altitude, thus extending the operational life of the flagship observatory.
SpaceX pitched the mission to NASA earlier this year in an apparent effort to find something cool for Jared Isaacman to do in space. The billionaire entrepreneur, who flew on the first private Dragon mission in 2021, has purchased four more trips to orbit from SpaceX. On the first mission, sometime next year, he and two SpaceX engineers will test out the company’s space suits. The second mission might include raising the Hubble.
The NASA officials discussing the study were circumspect, but you can imagine how excited they felt when Isaacman mentioned that the mission might not cost the government very much at all. Still, the idea of a billionaire volunteering to pay for and then personally do an ostensibly government job might sound a little strange. It’s beyond even the public-private model used by NASA and SpaceX before.
But there is enough precedent to make it fitting for Isaacman to dub his plans the “Polaris program.” The last time an obsession with North Stars was this in vogue among the wealthy was the 19th century.
Regular readers will be familiar with the work of Alexander MacDonald, the NASA economist who makes the argument that before the late 20th century, space exploration was largely a private endeavor. Prior to significant government investment in science, wealthy people sought status by building observatories that collected critical data about the universe. As the cost of frontier technology grew beyond even what the ultrawealthy could afford (and the public sector saw the military and economic benefits of scientific research), space exploration became a government activity.
Now, though, Musk and the rest of the new space sector are turning that idea on its head by driving down the cost of getting off the planet. That’s not just going to result in new business models, like internet satellites or on-orbit manufacturing, but also a return to old models of exploration.
Jonathan Karpoff, a University of Washington economist, once wrote a paper contrasting publicly and privately funded expeditions to the Arctic between 1808 and 1909. His results found that private expeditions were more successful and less prone to disaster than public ones, and his conclusion may seem familiar to people tracing the advances in NASA’s work with private companies: “[M]en died and ships were lost not because of the public nature of the funding per se, but rather because of the perverse incentives, slow adaptation, and ineffective organizational structures that frequently accompanied public funding.”
While the parallels don’t all line up—private arctic explorers were more willing to learn survival skills from the indigenous population, an advantage private astronauts probably won’t have—there are many problems that seem familiar in space: Plans handed down by politicians who didn’t have to do the job themselves, and reliance on traditional methods rather than adaptation and innovation.
Karpoff notes that Arctic explorers were obsessed: “[Robert Peary] spent most of his adult life scheming about and putting into practice his plans for Arctic exploration...[Charles Hall] was so driven to explore that he sold his business, abandoned his wife and family, and spent 10 of his last 13 years in the Arctic.” That reminds me of certain space-mad billionaires.
Even if NASA doesn’t okay the Hubble mission (or determines it should be done by an autonomous or remotely-piloted spacecraft), it won’t be long before we see more plans for private expeditions into deep space—if SpaceX can bring its Starship vehicle into operation. Other vehicles are simply too expensive.
“If you can get to the Moon, which we will certainly do, Starship is definitely capable of doing it, [then] the amount of velocity to get to Mars is negligible,” Isaacman said in an interview this week. “My prediction [is that] you have got hundreds, if not a thousand or so people in orbit in ten years. You have people walking around on Mars. I think SpaceX will be the leading organization in making it possible and Starship is the vehicle.”
Here’s the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft that launched the Crew-5 expedition to ISS. There’s just something so inviting about the hallway to the rocket...excuse me, the crew access arm.
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ViaSat makes another deal. The satellite operator sold its business operating a US military communications network for nearly $2 billion to L3Harris, a major US defense contractor. The move comes as ViaSat merges with Inmarsat, resulting in a combined company that could compete more effectively with new megaconstellations, but it will need to pay down debt with the proceeds from the sale.
Firefly gets to orbit. The company has put satellites on orbit with the first launch of its Alpha rocket. Capable of carrying one ton of cargo to low-Earth orbit, the vehicle is at the front of a wave of private rockets in that class.
AE takes on another space company. AE Industrial Partners, the private equity firm that owns Firefly and created the publicly traded space firm Redwire, has now bought a majority stake in York Space Systems, which makes satellite components.
SES closes in on $4 billion payout. The European satellite communications giant launched two new satellites onboard a ULA Atlas V rocket this week. If it can launch two more by the end of the year onboard a SpaceX Falcon 9, it should meet a deadline set by the FCC to free up radio spectrum for other users and earn a $4 billion reward.
The FCC adopted new rules for defunct satellites. But will a five-year deorbit rule be followed in practice?
The UK and South Korea won’t blow up satellites. Now there are seven nations onboard with a moratorium on destructive tests of anti-satellite weapons. Will the United Nations act?
This was issue 153 of our newsletter. Hope your week is out of this world! Please send your favorite stories of the Golden Age of Exploration, space M&A rumors, tips, and informed opinions to email@example.com.