August 4, 2021

The Future of Space Is Bigger Than Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, or Elon Musk

Richard Branson has been to space. Jeff Bezos will soon visit, too. Rich people have done this sort of thing before, but Branson and Bezos didn’t just pay for a ticket—they paid for the spaceships. Individuals, if they’re wealthy enough, are no longer beholden to government craft when they want to leave the planet for a little while.

These two voyages have generated an awful lot of takes. Some have celebrated the engineering and persistence required to fly a bunch of humans into space and bring them back safely, or the wonder of pushing the boundaries of possibility. Mostly, though, this has proven an irresistible occasion to vent frustrations about billionaires doing billionaire things instead of focusing their resources on the pandemic, or climate change, or any of the other rolling crises here on Earth. People are dying. The planet is broken. Maybe these guys, and fellow billionaire space enthusiast Elon Musk, ought to tuck their space phalluses away for a couple of decades and focus on some of our more immediate concerns.

A couple of decades ago, when the three men’s respective space companies were just getting started, they were taken as evidence that these nouveau riche types were dreaming too big. Now, notwithstanding some legitimate arguments about effective tax rates and who makes public policy, it’s the critics who are thinking too small. The billionaire joyrides into space are just the brightest, shiniest objects in a much larger field.

After decades of false starts, Earth’s orbit and points beyond are already being commercialized at incredible speed by dozens of private companies. Branson’s and Bezos’s willingness to go up in their own spacecraft amounts to little more than an endorsement that their vessels are finally safe enough for them to try, and, more pointedly, that space is open for business. Even if Bezos decides to back out before his flight on July 20, other people will keep going into space, possibly by the thousands, along with tens of thousands of machines designed to further commodify the heavens. What happens up above us will be one of the most important economic and technological stories of the next decade, whether or not Musk ever settles Mars.

Here are just a few of the less remarked-on recent stories out of the private space industry. First was the stock market debut of a company called Astra Space, which, backed by venture capitalists, built a viable orbital rocket in just a few years. Its goal is to fly satellites into orbit every single day. Shortly after Astra went public at a value of $2.1 billion, satellite maker Planet Labs—which uses hundreds of eyes in the sky to photograph the Earth’s entire landmass daily—announced its plans to do the same, at a value of $2.8 billion. Firefly Aerospace has a rocket on a California pad awaiting clearance to launch. OneWeb and Musk’s SpaceX are both regularly launching satellites meant to blanket the planet in high-speed internet access. Rocket Lab, in the previously spacecraft-free country of New Zealand, is planning missions to the moon and Venus.

The SPAC frenzy has been particularly kind to the private space industry, including some of the companies named above. Easier access to public markets has helped draw billions of dollars from excited investors to an industry once dependent on governments with vague military objectives or expansive views of public works. Partly as a result, the number of satellites orbiting the Earth is projected to rise from about 3,400 to anywhere between 50,000 and 100,000 in the next decade or so—and that’s even if these companies just fulfill the orders they’ve received so far.

It seems likely the estimates will slide a bit, given that those kinds of numbers would require rockets to blast off one after another from bustling private spaceports all over the globe on an extremely frequent basis. But whatever the precise timing, the message will remain unchanged: Private space is here. This month’s space tourism race is just escape-velocity window dressing on a much bigger, more transformative set of changes. The results of these shifts will be unpredictable, except that ego and greed will likely be as present as ever. Nonetheless, the evidence on the non-ground suggests we should consider the possibility that this emerging industry might turn out OK.

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To understand just how far private space has already come and where the real action already is, look at Decker Eveleth, who, until several weeks ago, was an anonymous senior at Reed College in Portland, Ore. (A health issue set his graduation back a few months.) Eveleth is a typical college student, except that, for funsies, he scours satellite imagery in search of weapon stockpiles and other military infrastructure. Last month he spotted what look pretty clearly like more than 100 intercontinental ballistic missile silos sitting in a desert in northern China, lending credence to rumors that the nation is building nuclear weapons in large numbers.

Eveleth heard the rumors from his mentor Jeffrey Lewis, an expert in nuclear arms control who specializes in this kind of citizen recon, commonly known as open source intelligence. In May, Lewis asked the young man to see what he could find. Based on a previous discovery, Eveleth knew that the Chinese military had sometimes excavated a site to build silos, then covered them with inflatable structures similar to the small white domes used for indoor sports. (Lewis calls them “bouncy houses of death.”) Eveleth went looking for more domes. “I had to make a series of assumptions,” he says. “I assumed it would be in northern China because there’s been lots of activity there. I also assumed it would be on nice, flat areas with high-quality ground.”

The undergrad searched satellite images spanning thousands of miles of Chinese desert. Until very recently, hardly any such images would exist for this territory. Conventional imaging satellites are costly, and generally need to be pointed with precision at discrete areas of high interest. Planet Labs’ much smaller, cheaper models, aimed at global coverage, have now taken years’ worth of pictures of the area Eveleth wanted. He created a gridded map and worked through it for more than a month until he spotted a collection of about 120 domes in one spot. Then he sorted the images from that area by date to see a play-by-play of the site’s clearing and construction. “We knew that it was a big deal,” he says.

Early on June 27, Eveleth and Lewis asked Planet to take some higher-resolution photos of the site. The company’s engineers reoriented the relevant satellites using radio signals from earthbound stations, and barely 24 hours later, the pair could see much clearer shots of the domes, as well as trenches for communication cables leading out from what appeared to be underground operations facilities. In early July, Lewis took Eveleth’s discovery to the press. The U.S. Department of State called the news “concerning.” Chinese state media said the site was just a wind farm under construction, but images from another satellite startup, Capella Space, undermined that explanation. Capella’s systems, based on a special type of radar, appeared to show liquid runoff coming out of the domes, and a series of metallic structures typically used to house weapons.