“What you have given me is the most profound experience I can imagine,” William Shatner told Jeff Bezos last month. Shatner, who played the iconic Captain Kirk in Star Trek, had just completed a real-life trip to the edge of space and back, traveling on a spacecraft belonging to Bezos’s aerospace company, Blue Origin—and generating all the international media coverage the company would have hoped for. While the episode was powerful public relations, Shatner hasn’t been the only prominent name to make headlines for space travel in recent months. Bezos made his own trip in July, not two weeks after Richard Branson did on a craft from his company Virgin Galactic. These billionaires, along with SpaceX founder Elon Musk, are leading a commercial-spaceflight industry that’s made giant strides over the past decade. What’s driving this business, and what does it mean for humanity’s future in space?

Joe Pappalardo, a U.S.-based journalist and the author of Spaceport Earth: The Reinvention of Spaceflight, argues this may be “the golden age of spaceflight” as “more spacecraft are being designed and flown now than ever before in history.” He notes that America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) helped foster and fund this private industry, which now provides the agency with vehicles and other technology. According to Pappalardo, ambition, ego, and personal idiosyncrasies are all behind the initiatives of these businessmen—Musk is obsessed with going to Mars while Bezos dreams of the moon—but they also understand themselves as expanding human reach, turning science fiction into reality, even if spaceflight will likely remain a privilege of the very wealthy for decades to come.


Graham Vyse: What are the origins of commercial spaceflight?

Joe Pappalardo: The history of U.S. spaceflight comes out of World War II. The Germans learned a whole lot about rocket technology by the end of the war, and some of them brought that to the U.S. By the Cold War, America had its A-team of rocket scientists racing the Soviet Union’s A-team of rocket scientists, each side trying to prove its system of government was better—by getting a satellite into orbit, getting human beings into orbit, getting someone to the moon. It was wrapped up in this geopolitical struggle, which informed how people viewed space. Still today, it’s about national pride and—even more now than it used to be—national security.

NASA had many achievements, with the Apollo program [which landed the first humans on the moon] and the International Space Station and the Space Shuttle. After Apollo, the idea was that we didn’t need to go back to the moon. I interviewed [the American astronaut] Buzz Aldrin once, and he was so gung-ho about going to Mars, because, he said, “We’ve been to the moon.” I said, “You’ve been to the moon.” But that really was a prevailing attitude. I talked to another NASA refugee who’s now at a commercial space company and this person said the moon had become “a four-letter word” at NASA. Everything was about orbit. Everything was about the space station.

NASA

Things had gotten stagnant by the time NASA retired the shuttle in 2011. At that point, there were no commercial satellite launches from the United States. To get people from Earth to the space station, the U.S. had to rely on the Russians. The parking lots at Cape Canaveral were empty. The Mars rovers were kicking ass—that’s basically what was happening at NASA.

SpaceX was an unproven company at this time. NASA was weaning it, trying to get money and life into its privately funded effort to build a rocket that could deliver people and cargo to orbit—to the space station. A small cadre of rebels within NASA backed commercial companies and said, We’ll give you the seed money. Make a blueprint that can do what we need that spacecraft, launch vehicle, or rocket to do. If you can do that, you can keep the blueprints and sell tickets to whoever can afford them. That’s the ethos of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

Vyse: Who are the key players in his era of commercial spaceflight, and what have they been doing over the past decade?

Pappalardo: Most people would start the story with SpaceX. I don’t, because Musk didn’t create the ecosystem supporting commercial spaceflight in the U.S. I start the story in Mojave, California. The spaceport there is old and ramshackle. The Marines used it in World War II. In the early 2000s, all these experimental companies started to go there and test outrageous rocket ideas. A guy named Dave Masten wound up going there with the idea of making rocket-powered landers that could bring supplies to and from the moon.

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