By David Gambacorta
Sometimes the smallest things, like an innocent question posed during a chance encounter, can open a universe of unseen possibility. Peter Hughes GEX04 discovered this firsthand when he was close to finishing his bachelor’s in computer science at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, and met an alumnus who worked in government. Over some small talk after a school basketball game, Hughes explained that he’d just taken a course in artificial intelligence. Intrigued, the older man asked: Would you be interested in working for NASA?
Hughes’s first impulse was to say no. He already had some job leads in the private sector that promised good money. It was 1985, and NASA was more than a decade removed from one of the defining human achievements of the 20th century: the moon landing. But the agency was again making headlines with its nascent space shuttle program, so Hughes decided to hedge a little. “I went to work for them for one day,” he says, “and I thought, ‘God! How can I turn this down?’” In the 34 years that followed, he rose to become chief technologist of the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and experienced the giddy thrill of seeing his behind-the-scenes work play a role in successful space missions. Hughes had a front-row seat to triumphs, like the 1998 launch of the International Space Station, and tragedies, like the fatal Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters.
At some point along the way, America’s fascination with space travel and exploration began to wane. In 2011, NASA’s space shuttle program went dark. Some observers wondered if the country had lost the fire that had fueled the space race decades earlier. Instead of craning our necks skyward, we became preoccupied with looking down to the devices in our hands to be dazzled. Perhaps humanity had boldly gone as far as it could.
The hand-wringing proved to be premature. Fifty years after Apollo 11’s lunar landing, the space industry is now in the middle of a stunning renaissance, one so fluid and fertile that analysts predict the industry’s economy could be worth a trillion dollars within the next 20 years. (Investors have sunk more than $18 billion into commercial space ventures since 2009.) But unlike in the 1980s, NASA is sharing the skies with a wide array of partners and competitors, from visionary billionaires like Elon Musk C97 W97 and Jeff Bezos to a growing number of foreign governments and scrappy startups. Their goals are as varied as the stars themselves: tourism, small satellite constellations, lunar bases, even the colonization of Mars. And the call to venture beyond Earth is as strong as ever, especially for those in the space business. “Once you see your own stuff in orbit,” Hughes says, “you get space fever.”
On an especially hot September day in 1962, President John F. Kennedy visited Rice Stadium in Houston and made a stirring pitch to 40,000 spectators about doing the impossible. He argued that America needed to commit to sending astronauts on a 238,000-mile journey to the Moon and find a way to get them home safely. This mission was meant to inspire humanity, but it also required the government to spend billions of dollars in the name of solving grand mysteries of the universe. “I realize that this is in some measure an act of faith and vision,” Kennedy told the crowd, “for we do not now know what benefits await us.” In the ensuing decades, it was difficult to envision NASA’s dominion over space travel ever being challenged, as the agency notched one era-defining technological achievement after another, from the rise of the space shuttle program to the launches of the Hubble Space Telescope and Mars Pathfinder. But during the mid-to-late-1990s, hints began to emerge of an approaching sea change. NASA faced the specter of steep budget cuts at the same time a handful of private companies showed that they, too, could launch rockets into space. Then, in 2002, the arrival of a new space age was announced by Musk, who reportedly invested more than $100 million of his fortune into the creation of SpaceX.
The California-based company set out to do, well, everything: build rockets, make it cheaper to launch cargo into orbit, and ultimately achieve what Musk would later describe to students at Penn’s College of Arts and Sciences as “the super holy grail situation … that we would play an important role in making life multiplanetary.” He was talking about Mars, of course. Musk imagined transporting humans to the Red Planet, where they could begin the historic task of colonizing another world—a goal that sounds as audacious now as Kennedy’s moon-landing speech once did.
In 2003, Ellen Chang C88 WG98 and Michael Langman WG98 hatched a plan to put Wharton on the radar of the growing aerospace industry. “Ellen and I just said, ‘Let’s form a club, hold an annual conference, and try to attract some interesting people,’” explains Langman, a former U.S. Army Paratroopers intelligence officer. The newly christened Wharton Aerospace Community hosted a few dozen recruiters at its first conference in University City.
Now the conference attracts several hundred people from a wide array of employers, including NASA, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and Lockheed Martin. “People see the power of the network,” says Langman, who serves as the corporate senior director of strategic initiatives at Thales USA, Inc., a multinational company that provides aerospace and military services to governments and private firms.
For proof of how far Wharton Aerospace’s reach extends, Langman cites Raj Shah WG09, a former F-16 pilot in the U.S. Air Force who volunteered at one of the community’s conferences and later went on to be appointed managing director of the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental under then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter in 2016. He was tasked with serving as a liaison between the Department of Defense and Silicon Valley startups; the existence of his role was an acknowledgement that when it came to matters like artificial intelligence, automation, and space exploration, the government was no longer on the cutting edge. “We worked with a lot of young companies that were focused on the new space era, from launch to payloads to satellites to data aggregation and analytics,” Shah says. “Traditionally, most of these companies were told not to work with government. We had to bridge that divide.”
Under Shah, the innovation unit awarded $200 million in contracts to 70 companies in two years. (He left the Department of Defense in 2018 and co-founded a cybersecurity startup.) He sees public-private partnerships as a critical part of the Defense Department’s future. “The traditional military industrial-complex approach was to use very bespoke, exquisite satellites that are amazing, but they’re prohibitively expensive,” Shah says. “Commercial space companies can offer satellites that are a lot cheaper. They may not be as powerful, but you get a great value.”
Chang, from her perch as a principal with BMNT Partners—it works with national security agencies and startups—has seen investor interest in the space industry grow during the past several years. “In 2015, there were maybe a dozen [venture capital firms] investing in the space sector,” she says. “Now, there’s about 100.” Last year, Morgan Stanley issued a report on financial opportunities in the space industry, predicting that revenues could reach $1.1 trillion or more by 2040. The investment giant noted that 2019 would be a pivotal year for key milestones in the public and private sectors and held a summit in New York City for leading companies and investors to discuss hot-button issues like the proposed U.S. Space Force and the evolving capabilities of China and other countries.
Some investors were attracted to the promise of nimble startups that might one day be gobbled up by Boeing or Northrop Grumman. Others, though, were simply fascinated by the twists and turns of a multibillion-dollar competition between three space barons.
On paper, this all seems fairly easy. Get the brightest minds in the public and private sectors together, mix in mountains of capital and some careful planning, and boom: The Jetsons will finally start to feel like a documentary. Garrett Reisman ENG90 W90 knows better. He’s worked where billionaires dream of going. “Nothing,” he says, “ever goes exactly according to plan.”
Reisman grew up in Parsippany, New Jersey, and dreamed of becoming an astronaut from an early age. But it wasn’t until he was a student in Penn’s Jerome Fisher Program in Management and Technology that he realized his childhood fantasy wasn’t so far-fetched; his engineering studies were imparting knowledge that could come in handy in space.
NASA selected Reisman as a mission specialist in 1998—the beginning of a 10-year journey that would culminate with him slipping the surly bonds of Earth aboard the space shuttle Endeavor and then spending 95 days living and working on the International Space Station. He returned to the ISS in 2010, but that trip saw him experience the sort of stomach-churning, white-knuckle dread you can normally only find in Hollywood films.
Reisman was encased in a bulky white space suit—the one that looks like a recliner with arms and legs—as he began working outside the ISS, tethered to a robotic arm the diameter of a telephone pole. His partner unplugged some electrical cables, inadvertently causing all the computers on the station to crash. The robotic arm that was supposed to pull Reisman back to safety? That went dead, too. Reisman was stranded on the arm with only a pair of waist tethers between him and a one-way ticket to the cosmos for 45 long minutes. “I guess I could have jumped,” he says, “but you might miss, and then you’re having a really bad day.”
He returned to terra firma and joined SpaceX in 2011. Three years later, as the director of crew operations, he was tasked with certifying the company’s Dragon 2 spacecraft, which will be used to send astronauts to the ISS. Working with Musk proved to be eye-opening. “He’s super exciting, super intense, and very demanding,” Reisman says. “He doesn’t compromise much on his vision, so the onus is on you to make it happen. And it’s not like his vision is modest.”
Reisman now teaches human spaceflight at the University of Southern California but came away from his seven years with the company believing that Musk is as concerned with saving Earth—with environmentally friendly endeavors like Tesla—as he is with reaching Mars: “He does not view Earth as some disposable planet.”
Reisman is also unapologetically awestruck by looming missions that seemed uncertain a decade ago. “We’re on the cusp of something that we’ve been after for a really long time, and that’s having several companies flying people into space on their vehicles,” he says. “That’s a huge step forward.” The fact that two of those missions will be private-public partnerships—SpaceX and Boeing each teaming with NASA to send astronauts to the ISS—is all the more remarkable. “Where we are now,” he says, “is a really good place.”
So where do we go next?
“I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.” Those are Musk’s words, underpinned with the casual confidence that typifies his Tony Stark-like persona, on a portion of SpaceX’s website that outlines some of the company’s most ambitious plans.
Since founding SpaceX, Musk has excelled at reigniting public interest in space exploration, generating headlines with his vision of colonizing Mars—with as many as a million people in the next 40 to 100 years—and a vow to fly Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and a group of artists on a loop around the Moon in 2023.
But Musk isn’t the only billionaire with bold ideas. Two years before SpaceX was formed, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos quietly founded his own private space company, Blue Origin. Bezos initially said little about his plans; now, however, he openly discusses his interest in forming a partnership with NASA to build a lunar lander that could carry five tons of cargo to the Moon, and he theorizes that heavy industry and manufacturing could eventually be done in space, leaving Earth as a mostly residential habitat. To help keep Blue Origin afloat, Bezos has reportedly invested a billion dollars a year in the company by liquidating shares of his Amazon stock.
Musk and Bezos were soon joined by Richard Branson, the British billionaire who added the spaceflight company Virgin Galactic to his empire in 2004. Compared to Musk’s longing for a mission to Mars, Branson’s aim was more modest: to send paying customers on a suborbital flight that would allow them to experience weightlessness and briefly view Earth from space.
The three founders acknowledge each other’s companies only in passing. “I tend not to focus too much on the competition,” Musk told Wharton Magazine in 2010. But he is very much aware of competitors who might try to, in his words, tilt the playing field in their favor. “We certainly have seen that in the space business,” he said then. “When you are fighting big defense contractors and they don’t think they can win in a fair contest, they will attempt to make the contest unfair by exerting huge amounts of influence on key politicians.”
In December, a pair of pilots flew Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane 51.4 miles, to the edge of space, indicating that the company is now close to being able to deliver on the space treks it has promised to an estimated 700 customers, each of whom has plunked down about $250,000 to become a space tourist. In January, Blue Origin successfully sent its reusable New Shepard rocket on an unmanned 66-mile test flight and predicted it, too, would begin sending space tourism customers on short flights later this year.
Musk and SpaceX, meanwhile, are set to mark a number of milestones. After a historic unmanned demonstration trip in March, the company expects to fly NASA astronauts to the ISS on its Crew Dragon spacecraft later this year, marking the first time that U.S. astronauts have ventured to the station without the aid of Russia since the space shuttle program ended. (NASA also plans to have astronauts make the same journey on Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft sometime this year.) In February, SpaceX launched an Israeli robotic probe to the Moon—the first privately funded moon launch, just a month after China successfully sent its own probe to the Moon—and planned to use its Falcon Heavy rocket to send a Saudi Arabian communications satellite into orbit. The company is also slated to begin test flights of its Starship prototype; the massive stainless steel rocket is expected to one day carry astronauts to Mars.
Other private companies are also aiming big. Axiom Space, which is run by a former ISS manager and ex-NASA contractors, has designs on building a commercial space station in pieces over the next five years, to ultimately replace the ISS when it reaches the end of its run. Two other companies, Bradford Space, Inc., and Planetary Resources, have a professed interest in mining asteroids for rare and valuable materials.
Reisman wonders if the current mix of private companies and government agencies will change over time. “Which model will prevail?” he asks. “If we’re talking about building ships to go to the Moon and take people to Mars, will it be public-private, with heavy NASA involvement, like now? Or purely commercial endeavors? That’s the hundred-billion-dollar question.”
Its answer will take some time to sort out, according to Ellen Chang. “From the billionaires’ perspective, these stories keep everyone excited,” she says. “But from a business perspective, some of the things the billionaires are funding are still aspirational. Venture capitalists aren’t funding these types of things.”
Chang and Langman see more investment opportunities and real-world applications for companies that specialize in small satellite constellations. Langman cited a number of possible uses for satellites that are roughly the size of toasters instead of school buses: Anything can be monitored, from military operations to crop growth, humanitarian crises, and the parking lots of shopping malls to gauge quarterly business. “You can buy pictures of these images for $99. You don’t have to spend millions of dollars to build your own satellite,” he explains. “A lot of companies are also getting into analysis and using machine learning to help you make sense of the images. A whole ecosystem is being built, and it’s affordable for the masses.”
Life on Mars?
Like a lot of people who live and breathe the space industry, Reisman has a wish list of achievements he hopes to see in his lifetime. Sitting at the top: the start of a permanent settlement on Mars.
The two decades astronauts have spent working on the ISS have helped NASA understand how to address some of the physical obstacles that arise from spending extensive amounts of time in space. Others—like how Mars-bound astronauts would respond to prolonged exposure to radiation and cosmic rays—are still unclear. Chang believes a return to the Moon is more likely than a trip to Mars. “It’s not like we launch and we’re at Mars,” she says. “It’s launch and we ride and ride and ride. Our bodies aren’t designed for it.”
Peter Hughes, back at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, offers a sobering note of support for Mars missions that reflects the mounting scientific evidence showing climate change may soon pose a real threat to life as we know it. “I’m surrounded by scientists who study this and say, ‘This is a problem, Peter,’” he explains. “Mars used to have a water-based surface. Look at what happened there.”
It’s one reason he welcomes the growing role that private companies are occupying in space exploration, a half-century after Neil Armstrong made his giant leap for mankind. “The fact that we have private industry taking risks to increase access to space frees up our resources so we can put them into next-generation technology,” Hughes says. “We’re getting out of a business in which the private sector excels.” On a practical level, private companies have flexibility for trial and error that government agencies don’t. If NASA built a rocket that failed during a trial run, Hughes muses, “We’d spend months with congressional panels having to explain what happened.”
NASA acknowledged as much in a plan it submitted to Congress last year outlining its vision to revitalize and sustain the agency. Its priorities ranged from establishing a permanent presence on and around the Moon to using a robot to collect samples from Mars as a precursor to crewed missions there in the 2030s. Spaceflight activities in low-Earth orbit, meanwhile, would largely become commercial affairs.
The agency is also preparing for the 2021 launch of the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope, which is 100 times more powerful than the Hubble and is slated to spend a decade studying the universe’s past in hopes of aiding humanity in discerning its future. “It will help us better understand the age of the universe, dark energy, and how galaxies evolved,” Hughes says. “And it will better analyze exoplanets and their atmospheres to see if they have the building blocks of life, to help us answer the question: Are we alone?”
Hughes pauses for a moment, letting the weight of that premise—of the awe-inspiring discoveries NASA, SpaceX, and so many others will seek—sink in. “For every question we answer,” he says, “there are 200 more we want to ask.” •
David Gambacorta is an investigative reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer and a freelance writer.
Published as “Return to the Final Frontier” in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of Wharton Magazine.