June 29, 2023


Our New Space Race: a review of When the Heavens Went on Sale by Ashlee Vance (Asheesh Agarwal, 6/29/23, Law & Liberty)

Vance traces the origins of several space companies, starting with the most successful of the new breed, SpaceX. Musk "willed SpaceX into existence" by investing $100 million of his own money and rejecting "the 'truths' held evident by the old, government-backed aerospace industry." Instead, SpaceX created reusable rockets, such as the Falcon 9, that have now launched hundreds of times. Musk's endeavor was not without risk. After multiple launch failures, Musk "was burning through his personal fortune at an alarming rate" and at one point had to launch his last rocket within eight weeks to survive.

Other companies endured by raising prodigious amounts of money via US capital markets. Rocket Labs had developed smaller rockets that reliably ferry satellites into orbit at a low cost. The company started in New Zealand, of all places, and took off in part because the government was "trying to run a pro-business government and quickly embraced the idea of New Zealand being at the forefront of such exciting technology." Within a few months, in fact, New Zealand created a pro-market regulatory framework and negotiated bilateral treaties with the United States. Eventually, Rocket Labs set up a second headquarters in Los Angeles to help secure talent and capital. As its founder, Peter Beck, noted, "Goddammit, America gets s-- done. There is no other place on Earth where a Kiwi could come into town and walk away with enough money to start a rocket company."

All this competition is, per the book's title, putting space within reach. Satellite and launch costs have plummeted. The cost of a satellite has fallen from around a billion dollars to as little as one hundred thousand dollars. With lower launch costs, the number of satellites has doubled (to around 5,000) in the last two years and could rise to 100,000 in the next decade. These new satellites will allow companies to provide new and cheaper services and to provide reliable internet connectivity around the globe. 

Posted by at June 29, 2023 7:32 AM


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