Can anyone keep up with SpaceX in the commercial space race?
It might be one of the four companies profiled in “When the Heavens Went on Sale” — a new book written by Ashlee Vance, the tech journalist who chronicled SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s feats and foibles eight years ago. Or it might be one of the dozens of other space ventures that have risen up to seek their fortune on the final frontier. Or maybe no one.
The space race’s ultimate prizes may still be up for grabs, but in Vance’s view, one thing is clear: There wouldn’t be a race if it weren’t for Musk and SpaceX.
“Elon sort of set this whole thing in motion,” Vance says in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. “My book is more or less a story of people who want to be the next Elon Musk.”
“When the Heavens Went On Sale” focuses on four ventures: Planet Labs, which put shoebox-sized satellites into space to observe Earth to an unprecedented degree; Rocket Lab, a launch company founded in New Zealand by a self-taught rocketeer; Astra, which launches rockets from Alaska; and Firefly Aerospace, which won the backing of a controversial Ukrainian-born tech entrepreneur.
How did Vance choose those four? It all started with Rocket Lab.
“Some of my favorite reporting from the Elon book was SpaceX, especially in the early days, and getting all these stories of what it was like to make the Falcon 1,” he says. “As the book came out, I just happened to take a trip to New Zealand, and I saw there was this guy named Peter Beck and this company, Rocket Lab, making something quite similar to the Falcon 1. And it just struck me — not, like immediately — but I had the sense that, wow, this is pretty amazing.”
And the other three companies? “I kind of just went with my gut a little bit,” he says.
“When the Heavens Went On Sale” by Ashlee Vance (Ecco HarperCollins)
In the book, Vance tells the stories behind the creation of those space startups and their interconnections. Every story has its quirks: Beck, for example, got into rocketry as a hobbyist and first made his mark with a rocket bike that looked as if it came straight out of Evel Knievel’s garage. Now he’s the CEO of a billion-dollar company that just launched a weather-monitoring satellite mission for NASA.
Vance recounts how Planet Labs was started up by a “space hippie crew” with the guidance of Pete Worden — a former Air Force general who stirred up so much controversy during his time as the director of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley that he was accused of being part of a conspiracy to destroy America’s space program.
The author was given exclusive access to the behind-the-scenes turmoil (and tedium) surrounding the rise of Astra, which started out with the name “Stealth Space Company” and saw one of its rockets literally go sideways on Alaska’s Kodiak Island.
And then there’s Max Polyakov, the Ukrainian-born investor who poured more than $100 million into Firefly Aerospace — only to be forced by the federal government to sell off his interest due to worries that he might be a Russian asset.
“He’s an OBGYN turned software millionaire, turned rocket magnate, and is just this … one-of-a-kind, force of nature,” Vance says. “And so the story was really what happens when you put this ‘bull in a China shop’ in the aerospace industry. I knew I wanted to see what would happen. When I set out to do this, I knew things would get weird. I did not know how weird they would get.”
Vance actually traveled to Ukraine in 2018 to see the decrepit Soviet rocket factory that Firefly tried to revive. Last year, the war in Ukraine brought an end to that effort. “Any hopes for a revival of the Ukrainian aerospace industry were in the process of being obliterated, along with much of the country,” Vance writes in the book.
Today Vance sees the war in Ukraine as a turning point, not only for Polyakov’s fortunes, but also for space security.
“We have all kinds of stuff between Russia and China and the U.S., with satellites that can spit out baby satellites that can go grab other satellites, and people try to shoot down satellites just to show that they can and create all this debris,” Vance says. “A lot of this very clearly came to a head in Ukraine in the war, where I would suggest that’s the first space war, or the inkling of a space war, that we’ve seen.”
SpaceX’s Starlink constellation provided vital communications links, while satellite imagery from Planet Labs and other companies added to the assets available to Ukrainian intelligence analysts. “You had one of the three main traditional space superpowers, in Russia, get totally flipped on its head by commercial space,” Vance says. “Things are only going to get more chaotic, I think, as time goes on.”
Ashlee Vance (Credit: © Mark Townsend via Ecco HarperCollins)
Things have gotten less chaotic for Vance in at least one respect, however, having to do with his relations with Elon Musk. Vance says Musk wasn’t happy with some of the “less flattering stories” that were recounted in his biography.
“He didn’t talk to me for a long time,” Vance says. “And then I think, as they say, time heals all wounds. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I write about it in the book. He just called me out of the blue one day while I was in New Zealand reporting on Rocket Lab. And we’ve been talking since then.”
Vance acknowledges that Musk’s $44 billion purchase of Twitter, and all the twists and turns that led to, have had a polarizing effect. “People seem to either love him or hate him, and I think it’s a bit silly if you actually know him and spend time with him,” he says. “Like anyone, he’s a nuanced person, in person. He is not the Twitter Elon.”
What about the SpaceX Elon? “In some ways, the Space Elon is the easiest Elon to understand, which is surprising in some sense,” Vance says. “I mean, SpaceX is almost like the most stable thing in his life — which you usually cannot say for rocket companies.”
If SpaceX’s super-heavy-lift Starship launch system lives up to its promise, that will give Musk an even bigger lead.
So, back to the first question: Can anyone keep up with SpaceX? Based on the current state of the commercial space industry, Vance sees one potential rival, and it’s not Blue Origin or United Launch Alliance:
“SpaceX does look just incredibly dominant at this moment. If you’re talking about getting satellites to space, it’s like SpaceX and Rocket Lab. That’s it. So you’ve got one company that’s done hundreds of launches, another that’s done dozens, and then very quickly you drop off to one or two, and most of those rockets are being rebuilt and refashioned. So there’s kind of two games in town.
“The Starship thing is interesting. Does it take longer than Elon expects and give Rocket Lab time to [build] a bigger rocket? Does that give it time to catch up to the Falcon 9? Does Rocket Lab become sort of this, whatever you want to call it, the IBM to SpaceX’s Apple, where you have these two competitors? I think something like that could happen.
“I also think .. we’re going to have this retrenching, and then there’s going be another stab at this where we try to correct some of the mistakes that came before. … If all these spreadsheets are correct and we are to send up 200,000 satellites in, call it the next 10 or 12 years, not even SpaceX really would be able to meet that demand. And I don’t think the rest of the world would tolerate having just one company doing all this. … This is the dominant question hanging over this whole industry: How many rockets do we need?”
“When the Heavens Went On Sale: The Misfits and Geniuses Racing to Put Space Within Reach” comes out May 9. Check out Ashlee Vance’s website for more information about the book and his virtual book tour.
Check out the original version of this post on Cosmic Log for Ashlee Vance’s recommendation for further reading on the history of the commercial space age, and stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via Apple, Google, Overcast, Spotify, Player.fm, Pocket Casts, Radio Public and Podvine. If you like Fiction Science, please rate the podcast and subscribe to get alerts for future episodes.