Paul Allen funded the development of SpaceShipOne, which won the Ansari X Prize in 2004. But Allen’s death last October has affected another space company he founded, Stratolaunch. (credit: J. Foust)
by Roger Handberg
Pushing out toward the final frontier is difficult both in the physical sense of building vehicles capable of carrying people out into the unknown as well as in the human sense. The former refers to the fact that simply reaching outer space safely and pushing outward from there is expensive, dangerous, and requires a long-term mindset. The lonely tinker working in their garage (e.g. the Wright Brothers) represented one path forward in the early days of human flight, albeit not spaceflight. Spaceflight requires significant resources, which traditionally has meant that the government or other organizations must be persuaded to provide that funding over relatively long periods of time. The Smithsonian, for example, supported Goddard’s early work leading to a liquid fueled launch vehicle albeit small in size.
To be truly successful, spaceflight cannot be a one-off venture but instead must proceed through distinct steps in the development process, from drawings, models to prototypes to actual launch vehicles. That is what distinguishes such developers from leaders pursuing publicity and glory by launching modified rockets as a one-off stunt. Scaling up a prototype to a truly useable flight vehicle, one not experimental in nature, is a long process often fraught with frequent testing failures. Space history is littered with such failures, including spectacular explosions.
Which brings one to the other side of the equation: finding a sponsor for the project, one with deep pockets and a willingness to continue funding even as test flight failures mount up. From spaceflight’s earliest days, such sponsors were hard to find, with the result that most successful pursuers of spaceflight linked up with national militaries. Funders such as the Smithsonian Institution lacked the deep pockets necessary for more advanced work. The military came looking for usable weapons initially but, in time, supported other space applications that possessed military value such as reconnaissance and communications.
However, these funding sources were often narrowly focused on the mission objective sought by the funding organization. During World War II in Germany, Nazi security officials were reportedly concerned that the builders of the V-2 were more interested in pursuing space exploration than building the best military applications. Whether this was true is unimportant because a similar situation arose later in the United States in the 1950s when US Army leaders were concerned that Werhner von Braun and his team were more interested in reaching orbit than achieving the goal of developing a useful ballistic missile. So, each test launch was reportedly inspected prior to flight to ensure that payload was going downrange, not up into orbit.
After Sputnik 1 was launched in October 1957, US concern became getting to orbit as quickly as possible especially after the nationally televised Vanguard launch fiasco. Thus, the pattern was set: space advocates could obtain government funding for space activities, but those after the Apollo program were not a priority but rather a “nice to have”. Evidence to this point is seen in the decline in NASA’s relative share of the US federal budget compared to the its heyday during the Apollo program. This view ignores the reality of how extraordinary the Apollo program was in terms of political support, but even NASA’s budget quickly receded in terms of relative budget share prior to the Apollo 11 mission landing in 1969.
With the growth of commercial space activities, the impetus for government support was further lessened since the private sector can do many of the tasks NASA accomplished or had developed earlier. The federal government continues to fund space activities such as space science missions, while human spaceflight continues as a major function but represents a much lower national priority despite political rhetoric to the contrary across multiple presidential administrations.
Searching for alternatives
Given this reality, the search for other, more pristine sources of funding for space development began—pristine in that the motives ascribed were not explicitly political or military, although often commercial in ultimate intent. These sponsors motivated by some personal dream or vision of a bold space future. For obvious reasons, such sponsors are hard to find.
Such a quest became possible because the massive and continuous government investment in space technologies ultimately flowed into the commercial sector: the concept of off-the-shelf space technologies became realistic. Commercial startups still had to engage in hard research and development, but the principles were clearer and the lead designers and engineers had both experience and expertise to bolster their chances at success. This opened the door for patrons to enter the field.
Patrons are individuals and/or families who possess enough resources to invest long term in projects that grabbed their attention. Earlier in history, such individuals funded art and music and, in some cases, scientists, explorers, and engineers. Their motives varied, but the key was their commitment to a project. In time, as costs rose, governments and large-scale businesses replaced such patrons. Such activities continue today but government funding becomes often an important facet of the funding. In recent times, patrons have returned to prominence due to government shortfalls or withdrawals from funding a particular area. Otherwise, patrons otherwise enter the field due to their impatience with the pace of progress. They are convinced an opportunity exists that their investment or involvement but more importantly their vision can.
Rise of the billionaire space patron
Recently, space activities in several areas have witnessed the return of the patron to prominence. Vast fortunes are being accumulated by individuals who have interests in pursuing new technology. Some enter the space field because of what they perceive as a stagnant field essentially replicating itself without advancing. Their views are driven by their earlier roles as disrupters—that is, generating major changes or else creating new fields of economic growth. These “space baron” billionaires, as Christian Davenport described them in his recent book, are much celebrated, including Paul Allen, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos. Bill Gates is the one least likely to be included but his original investments in the Teledesic effort was a change agent in that it introduced the concept of the giant constellation of communications satellites. Teledesic was conceived as 840 LEO satellites, plus spares, in an interconnected web providing global coverage. The project was scaled down to 288 satellites, and less in later iterations, before being cancelled due to cost and technical issues. Ahead of its time, Teledesic signaled one path to the future being aggressively pursued today by multiple players proposing broadband megaconstellations.
The patrons’ role is to act as catalyst, hopefully sparking a boom in whichever facet of space activities they pursue. This expectation of great success is based on their earlier being at the cusp of change in their original endeavor. Musk appears more frequently in the media but is also the least wealthy with his resources committed to several enterprises, including Tesla and SpaceX. Paul Allen was the model for the space age patron with his first public presence coming during the Ansari X Prize competition. He funded the winning entry in 2004 when SpaceShipOne completed its second suborbital flight within a two-week period, opening the door to suborbital human spaceflight on a commercial basis. Subsequently, Allen funded development of Stratolaunch, building a giant airplane to serve as an air-launch platform.
Richard Branson followed up on the Ansari X Prize with commercialization of the flight concept in a second-generation SpaceShipTwo. That developmental process has dragged due to technical issues and a fatal flight accident during testing. Most recent estimates are that the system will enter commercial service later this year. The concept has been broadened to incorporate scientific and commercial payloads that require some time in microgravity, while an offshoot, Virgin Orbit, develops its own air-launch system. Branson’s Virgin Galactic represents an early effort at operationalizing tourist flights with possibly multiple flight locations spread across the globe wherever the customer base is found, such as Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. The challenge is that others may duplicate that model or move past it to orbital flights for tourists and companies needing cheaper access to space.
Jeff Bezos, in a mysterious and secretive manner, has engaged in a flight development process at Blue Origin that appears long-term in nature. The early effort focused on suborbital reusable flight but is expected to expand to orbital flight for both passengers and payloads. Presently, everything is developmental in nature such as the New Shepard aimed at suborbital flight, while New Glenn will provide orbital launch services. The latter has already been able to acquire several launch contracts, most recently for Telesat’s broadband constellation. This activity is all in the future, but establishes Blue Origin as a serious contender in an increasingly competitive launch marketplace.
These patrons or space barons, with their tech-derived fortunes in most cases (Branson being the exception), represent an alternative to corporate and government funding. All their efforts are driven by their personal goal of making space activities more real and in effect “down to Earth” in that they are trying to both break the chains of the past and build upon the accomplishments of those earlier space pioneers, either engineers or entrepreneurs. Their success will open doors somewhat faster, but the question that arises is whether their companies or endeavors will endure past their tenure.
Death has already claimed one of these patrons: Paul Allen, whose passing is already leading to a scaling back of the dream that he pursued. The company has announced that it will not pursue development of a family of rockets capable of carrying a variety of payloads to orbit. Instead, the program will focus on launching Pegasus vehicles, an already established technology, no longer pushing the boundaries forward. The prior announcement of the rocket family was fairly new and preceded Allen’s death by several months.
Others have had other life events occur that potentially could be disruptive of plans such as Jeff Bezos’ recently announced plans for a divorce. Most attention has focused on possible impact on Amazon and its operations, although that is likely the most stable situation in the new context because that company has in place a structure that can function even if the leader is distracted—its impact would be lessened and more likely long term in nature. Bezos’ engagement in Blue Origin is more personal and therefore more likely subject to possible disruption through events in his personal life.
In Elon Musk’s situation, his behavior has apparently become an issue in that there is concern whether his example permeates the organization, SpaceX. NASA said last fall it was performing a safety review of the commercial crew program, of which SpaceX is a partner, while the Pentagon’s inspector general last week announced plans to audit whether the Air Force followed procedures when it certified SpaceX’s rockets.
Those issues should be resolvable, but they illustrate the point that dependence on a patron or space baron is a single point failure situation. Allen’s untimely death has apparently ended the vision that underlay the original impetus for Stratolaunch. Paul Allen bought the vision that the company pursued until his death, but now the company appears much less ambitious and visionary.
A patron with deep pockets can do much to foster a field of endeavor, but the weakness is that progress may end when that individual dies, becomes disinterested or bankrupt, or otherwise decreases the resources needed to implement that vision. Paul Allen was a serial patron—the Ansari X Prize first, then Stratolaunch (along with a diversity of other projects)—but that vision was not institutionalized, so it may have ended with his death. Families such as the Rockefellers attempted, through funding Rockefeller University along with the University of Chicago and the family foundation, to institutionalize the family’s interest in certain topics. Individuals of extreme wealth, or those with the ability to leverage what they have, can still have an impact on space activities especially in the commercial sector. The question is whether that results in an enduring impact or just a series of vanity projects.