An examination of the shift in space exploration and satellites from government-led to private sector dominance and how SpaceX has led the way.
The recent congressional budget battles have underscored the scarcity of public funds for space, science, and technology. This has paved the way for the private sector, a world that Ashlee Vance delves into in this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast and in his new book, When the Heavens Went On Sale: The Misfits and Geniuses Racing to Put Space Within Reach.
Vance talks about the 2008 paradigm shift in space exploration, marked by the launch of Elon Musk’s SpaceX Falcon One Rocket. He highlights the rapid progress in the commercial space sector, with companies like SpaceX and Rocket Lab conducting frequent launches and the dizzying proliferation of satellites now in orbit — already in the thousands and growing exponentially.
This shift demonstrated, Vance says, how smaller private companies can challenge the historical dominance of governments and large corporations. Vance underscores the excitement of this new era of space exploration, operating in a largely ungoverned and unregulated environment.
He profiles key figures and examines the role of companies, particularly SpaceX, but also Planet Labs, Rocket Lab, Astra, and Firefly, in reshaping the space industry. He talks of the rise of entrepreneurs like Musk, who set out to make space travel and satellite launches more affordable and accessible, and to create a new industry of space tourism.
Vance explains why many of these new companies see space primarily as an opportunity to impact life on Earth, from climate-change monitoring to providing internet access to remote areas.
Vance also touches on the tension between traditional industry players, such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Airbus, and Silicon Valley innovators — and the potential implications for national security and government interference in commercial space ventures.
Vance also reminds us that while space tourism garners much attention, it is not the most commercially viable aspect of the industry currently.
Full Text Transcript:
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Jeff: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. Historically, space exploration was the domain of governments and large corporations, but in 2008, a paradigm shift happened. Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched the Falcon 1 rocket demonstrating that private companies could indeed reach orbit. This event kicked off a new era, one that was ungoverned, vast, and rich with possibilities of an open market.
In recent years, a new breed of entrepreneurs has emerged determined to make space travel more affordable and accessible. These companies are building new rockets and satellites, and with increasing alacrity launching them into orbit, they’re not just interested in sending people to the moon or Mars. They want to use space to revolutionize our life here on Earth. From monitoring climate change to providing internet access to remote areas, the possibilities are just beginning to unfold.
These companies are operating in a wild west environment with little regulation or oversight, and of course, there’s always the possibility of failure, but that’s part of the excitement. These are the misfits and geniuses who are racing to put space within reach of all of us. That’s the subject of a new book by my guest, Ashlee Vance.
Ashlee Vance tells the story of this new area in space exploration in his new book When the Heavens Went on Sale. Ashlee Vance is the New York Times bestselling author of Elon Musk and a feature writer at Bloomberg Businessweek. He’s also the host of Hello World, a travel show that centers on inventors and scientists, and previously worked as a reporter for the New York Times and The Economist. It is my pleasure to welcome Ashlee Vance to the WhoWhatWhy podcast to talk about When the Heavens Went on Sale: The Misfits and Geniuses Racing to Put Space Within Reach. Ashlee, thanks so much for joining us.
Ashlee: Thank you for having me and that kind introduction.
Jeff: Well, it is a delight to have you here. You talk about this period of around 2008 as being a pivotal moment when Musk launched the Falcon 1 and really put private business, private enterprise into space. It does seem though that there was almost a perfect storm because at the same time, as you talk about the sclerosis of NASA kind of led to this in some respects. Talk about that first.
Ashlee: It did. I think of space as just this very exciting futuristic endeavor. But when you dig into it, there was this frenetic amount of amazing activity in the ’60s and ’70s, and then it seemed like we really locked everything in place. At that point the rockets stayed the same, the satellites stayed the same, military contractors bagged in, NASA slowed down and we got locked in just these traditions and it took SpaceX.
Some millionaires had tried to make rockets in the past and had had some minimal success in really SpaceX getting this Falcon 1 rocket. In 2008, it was the much cheaper rocket. It had much more modern technology, and of course, it had the drive of Elon Musk and his team behind it. It wasn’t clear at the time how momentous this would be or what it would kick off because I argue in the book it is this very handy date where you can see things start to change.
Jeff: There was a shift that was beyond that and in a broad sense that suddenly Silicon Valley and people that had been involved in contemporary technology were suddenly starting to get involved in aspects of space in the space program.
Ashlee: Absolutely. Clearly, space had been seen as something that nation-states did. We had this mentality which I argue in the book is a bit of a historical artifact, but we have this mentality that you have to have thousands of people and a government and all this money to even try these things. You could never fail. Everything had to be perfect.
We couldn’t experiment. And once Silicon Valley gets in, clearly, if you’re talking about sending humans to space, all these rules apply. But when you’re talking about satellites and making rockets cheaper, the Silicon Valley ethos really was what I would argue was required to see significant change in this industry. And clearly, tech companies and people of that mindset go after things, try to make them cheaper, better, faster all the time.
Jeff: There was a lot of failure involved even in the Falcon 1. It took a while before Musk was successful.
Ashlee: Right. This has gotten easier but it’s still not easy. The Falcon 1 wasn’t even that complicated of a rocket. It was quite small. It’s one of my favorite stories really of all my reporting. SpaceX had this team of 20-somethings on this island called Kwajalein, which is about as far away from anything as you could get. It’s between Australia and Hawaii.
This was around 2002 when they get there. They thought they’d build this rocket in about 18 months. They end up living on Kwajalein for six years. They blow up three rockets along the way. The fourth one was this make-it-or-break-it moment. Elon, he was not nearly as wealthy as he is today. He was running out of money and this is hard and it almost didn’t happen.
Jeff: And it really puts in perspective, not to get too far ahead of the story, but it really puts in perspective the recent efforts, his SpaceX recent efforts with Starship.
Ashlee: Right. I totally understand the public sees Starship blow up and would maybe consider this a failure. I spent five years on this book and lived with some of these rocket companies and I can assure you, nobody in history, no country, no company has had a first rocket launch succeed. Starship is the most ambitious rocket anyone’s ever made. So any data you get from these early flights is really what the companies are looking for. They just don’t want the rocket to blow up on the pad and they destroy everything and get no information from it. And so, no that was a success to me and certainly got them closer to getting to orbit.
Jeff: As this all started to unfold from 2008 forward, what was the view of the government and NASA?
Ashlee: Well, parts of the government, the Defense Department in particular, and DARPA, the R&D arm of the Defense Department, they had desired this change in space for decades. They’ve been wanting something they call responsive space and we see it today with the Space Force. It’s the idea that a conflict breaks out somewhere.
And on a moment’s notice, you send up a rocket with a satellite and you put the satellite right over the place where the conflict is happening to watch everything going on. They had tried to do this. They tried to encourage the military contractors to pursue the type of technology and just failed, and nobody could really pull it off. NASA was torn between two worlds for a long time.
You had people who wanted nothing to do with commercial space and thought SpaceX was a joke that could just never work. And then you absolutely had elements within NASA that have been fantastic and they’ve put funding towards these things and helped make companies like SpaceX and the others I write about a reality. It’s just been most of the government side of it has to be dragged kicking in and screaming to its new reality.
Jeff: And that’s really personified in this character. You write about this general Pete Worden. Talk about him.
Ashlee: He’s one of my favorite characters in the book and in life in general. Pete, he’s an astrophysicist, he’s got a PhD by education. He ended up in the Air Force, became a general. He worked on the Star War program that people might remember the Missile Defense Shield during the Reagan era. He did a lot of black ops things that he can’t talk about. But throughout all these roles, he was this iconic figure who was pushing all these elements of the government in military to think differently, to try to make things cheaper and faster.
And he ends up getting NASA Ames, which is Silicon Valley NASA Center. He becomes the director. And this is later in his career, but this is his first chance to really have control and push these ideas forward. So he brings in all these 20-somethings from outside of NASA who he had found at conferences and gives them money to go try all these new ideas. He thought about new satellites, cheap satellites, small ones, small rockets, everything. And much of the story that I write about in the book unfold from the works that Pete did.
Jeff: And his getting sent out to NASA, to Ames was not a reward. It was almost a punishment.
Ashlee: Right. Yes. He had been running the program this opposite of misinformation after 9/11 to try and improve the impression of the United States in the Middle East and the New York Times uncovered what was going on. It was loosely like a propaganda operation. And the New York Times discovered it and once the Times had written about it, the program really couldn’t exist anymore because it wasn’t clandestine. And Pete was in charge of that. And so Rumsfeld and President Bush fired him. He was still seen as a valuable asset, but they stashed him away at NASA Ames where they thought he couldn’t do too much harm.
Jeff: And in fact, he did a lot.
Ashlee: I would argue he did good, but it was seen as harm in the NASA context. He was still this rebel. He was fired almost, I don’t know, 18, 19 times. He would do things like — they had a program that I write about where they wanted to make a low-cost lunar lander. They looked at all the NASA budgets, it was always $500 million for anything. And he’s like, “I think we could do something for $20 million, send a cheap lunar lander and just show what’s possible.”
And he had to hide this work literally in closets at the campus because when certain senators or NASA officials found out about the work, they would shut it down and he would have to hide it. Again, probably sounds baffling to people, but it was really just that nobody at NASA or these contractors wanted to find out if you actually could do something cheaper because it would ruin the lifestyle they’ve become accustomed to.
Jeff: One of the things that overlay all of this is the clash of cultures. That the culture of Silicon Valley, those that wanted to get involved in this arena was very different than as you’ve talked about, the military-industrial complex, what they were doing and what NASA was doing.
Ashlee: Yes, a lot of the 20-somethings that Pete brought in to Ames, so this group, in particular, were what I described as space hippies. They were idealists. They were youngsters who were really into space, had studied it at university. They hated the idea of the militarization of space, which ironically is what Pete Worden really stood for, but they still were able to work together. But these were people who wanted to not like colonize space as some new territory, but to use space for some good back here on earth, and really did have that ethos running through them. Then they also had the mix of Silicon Valley. A lot of them came from the tech world, the open-source software world, and still had that spirit of innovation.
Jeff: You write about a number of companies in both the satellite business and the rocket business, and we’ll talk about a few of them. How essential, though, was SpaceX and its success to all of this? If SpaceX didn’t exist, if it had failed, how different would this story be? How different would this landscape be?
Ashlee: I think SpaceX was crucial because people have been desiring commercial space for decades, and we’d had so many false starts. The millionaires who had tried this would almost always give up because the government starts to put up too many roadblocks, and I argue that SpaceX as much of just getting this rocket to fly and having this rich guy behind it, it was more of a mentality change where people all around the world saw what SpaceX had done, and thought, “Okay, finally, somebody’s done this. They’re still going, they’re going to make a run at this. I think we could do this too.”
They saw themselves as maybe the next Elon Musk, and there was some mystique in all of that, but it unlocked. There was so much passion that people have for space. All these young engineers that they’d been stuck working at places like Lockheed and Boeing. It was depressing. Finally, there was excitement again, and I think it just unlocked all this latent enthusiasm and passion, and revitalized space.
Jeff: How important was the unfolding and understanding of commercialization to all of this? The fact that you could do this and that it could also be a profitable business?
Ashlee: Well, it’s huge, and it’s the drive. This is why over the last three years, about $280 billion of venture capital money have been poured into this. People see, again, not so much tourism or a Mars colony, but we’re in the process of putting tens of thousands of satellites in low earth orbit, as a data business. I think of it as the next elements of our technological infrastructure build-out. Just like we laid fiber cables all over the world and data centers to support the internet, we’re doing the same thing in space, and so people see opportunity there really as this data information business. I do present this idea in the book that this is all very attractive, but we do not actually know how this is going to work out, and it is quite a risky proposition.
Jeff: Again, SpaceX, Starlink in particular seems to be at the forefront of these efforts.
Ashlee: Absolutely. There’s two huge buckets so far that are clearly generating money. It’s Starlink which is a space internet system where you send high-speed internet down from low earth orbit, and you reach rural places, you reach countries that can’t be tapped by fiber optic cables. Today, it’s actually about half the world’s population. And then there’s imaging. It’s taking far, far more pictures of the earth than we ever have before, and analyzing them to see what’s happening back here on Earth. But yet this is to your point, probably people listening know lots of people with Starlink. Nothing in this book is futuristic or maybe going to happen. This is happening now. The number of satellites going into space in the last three years has increased exponentially, and so this is real, this is happening.
Jeff: You have companies that are also getting into this business competing really with Starlink and with SpaceX, companies that are trying to do — one in San Francisco doing it at high earth orbit.
Ashlee: Well, again, this is what’s driving this huge influx in satellite. So for Starlink, sometimes they talk about on the order of 14,000 satellites to power it. Just to give people an idea, in 2020, so this is the entire space age, we’d only put up about 2,500 satellites in the lower earth orbit. So you’ve got Starlink with 14,000, Amazon wants to put up 14,000 satellites of its own. There’s a company called OneWeb that’s mostly based in Europe, they want to do the same thing.
And then to your point, then there’s a number, there’s dozens of other communication startups that have slightly different plates. Some of them don’t want to do high-speed internet. They just want to do a little bit of data or they want to cover a particular geography. But all of these need what the industry is now calling constellations of satellites, so many satellites operating together.
Jeff: Is there still a question of what’s going to be more commercially successful, whether it’s 14,000 Starlink satellites or companies that want to put up satellites in geosynchronous orbit?
Ashlee: This is a huge question. SpaceX, the valuation is going up all the time. I forget what the latest number is, but it’s somewhere around $140 billion. It’s a private company, but that’s what the investors value it at. SpaceX is the leading rocket company in the world, but most of its value is actually tied into this promise of what Starlink could be. The trend has been geostationary orbit, you’re talking about tens of thousands of miles from Earth versus low earth orbit, which is just right above our heads. And most of the action taking place has been in low earth orbit. We discovered that you didn’t have to build just one giant satellite and stick it in geostationary orbit. It is probably better to build lots of cheap ones and put them closer to the earth to get these better pictures, better data speeds, all of that.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about these other companies, these four other companies that you write about that are now so active in this area.
Ashlee: Sure. Yes. My book divides roughly into one satellite company and three rocket companies. The most interesting satellite company to me is the Planet Labs, which grew out of NASA Ames. It was founded by these space hippies, that I talk about, who used to live in a commune together. Again, people don’t know this, but they have already surrounded the Earth with about 250 imaging satellites. These satellites take multiple pictures of every spot on the earth’s landmass every day. The US, China, Russia cannot do this with their government satellites. They have too few satellites that only look at specific places, and so this is the first time we’ve had this real-time accounting system of the Earth taken from above.
The other companies, there’s Rocket Lab is a startup based in New Zealand that bakes Rockets. It was founded by this gentleman, Peter Beck, who didn’t even go to college, and they make a small, cheap rocket. A company called Astra makes the even smaller cheaper rocket that it’s hopefully to launch every day and mass-produced like a car. And then there’s a story on Firefly, which is a rocket maker in Texas, but that story is really about this gentleman named Max Polyakov, who was a Ukrainian multimillionaire who got into the space race.
Jeff: What is the nexus between all of this and national security and things like the Space Force that you mentioned before?
Ashlee: Well, so fascinating. For the government and the DOD and their aspirations with Space Force whether you’re for or against it, all this stuff is good for them. They’re getting the rockets and satellites they desire. In the bigger picture, I think we’re in for a massive shake-up. You had a handful of governments that had control of space for the last 60, 70 years. They are losing this control. Some of them as a country like the United States is the hotbed of commercial space. So it’s probably good for the United States and probably terrible for Russia with their space program has been crumbling for a number of years. This has been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine and Russia has no commercial space to speak of.
And so what happens when a superpower loses its thing that they’re very proud of and that’s strategic? And then you have the Chinese government which is largely backing their very ambitious space program. And then you have countries all over the world that are now spacefaring nations for the first time, largely through this commercial work. I think we’re in for a bit of turmoil and chaos, and excitement as this new reality shakes out where everybody who really wants to do something in space will have a chance.
Jeff: How concerned are VCs and the money that’s pouring into this? How concerned are they about government regulation, government interference, things that could put a crimp in some of this?
Ashlee: Quite well, there are concerns. Starlink wants to be this global telecommunications company, that’s really the end goal, but you are governed by Russia, China, they do not want all of their citizens just to have the ability to get the free and open internet and so they put restrictions around this. I think largely at this particular moment in time it’s a time of growth. And there are not tremendous roadblocks to what’s going on and people are largely excited to see how these businesses play out.
I think the bigger question for the venture capitalists is who’s actually going to make money from this because this first wave of start-up, some of them are already starting to go bankrupt. It’s a very expensive business. And so again, there’s so much excitement and hope around this but we’ve yet to see someone make a ton of profit.
Jeff: Is any of this related to all the talk and it was all the rage a couple of years ago about space tourism?
Ashlee: Space tourism, I think people fixate on that way to watch. That’s what I argue. Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are the two leading space tourism companies. They had some successful flights and then things went wrong and they’ve both been shut down for quite a while. It’s very expensive. You only go to space for a few minutes. I know people get excited about this for obvious reasons. To me, it’s not a terribly realistic business in the short term.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about the timeframe in all of this. One of the things you point out is that from the very first satellites to the Sputnik, et cetera, to the end of the Apollo program was only about 15 years and right now we’re about 15 years out from the first flight of Falcon 1. Talk about that in terms of comparison of speed that this is moving.
Ashlee: It really the last five years where things went from interesting to just moving incredibly fast. For example, throughout the entire history of the space era, you were lucky. If were the US, Europe, whatever, you were lucky to fly one rocket a month with a couple of satellites. That was good. That was the high achiever. [laughs]. SpaceX currently is flying almost every other day a rocket to space with dozens of satellites on it. And Rocket Lab, the other company we mentioned that’s based in New Zealand, a country that had no space program at all, they are also flying about once a week now and are right on SpaceX’s heels. We’re moving to an era where rockets almost certainly will be going off every day instead of about 100 times a year worldwide.
Jeff: Because you have written about both I have to ask, to what extent has Elon Musk as a lightning rod is a controversial figure is such a large public figure played a role or playing a role in the way SpaceX and the way this whole larger story evolves?
Ashlee: It’s funny because he’s actually quite eccentric and volcanic as a person and SpaceX probably should be the riskiest of all his ventures. It’s turned out to be the most stable. It’s running laps around the entire world in this industry. Shocked to see how far they’ve come in the last 20 years. And so I think no matter what mental state Elon is in, I think SpaceX is going to do okay and it’s setting the pace for everyone. There are huge questions, though. If you look at Ukraine, the Russians came in, they tried to destroy Ukraine’s communications infrastructure very quickly in the war, and Starlink backstops the entire thing for the Ukrainian military and government.
They’ve been running on Starlink all these many months. Elon, on occasion, has complained that SpaceX is donating a lot of the Starlink systems. It’s paying for this and it’s too expensive. And he threatened at one point to shut Starlink off in Ukraine and the government there and the military freaked out. But this was the first time I think people had a wake-up call that, my goodness, this company has the power of a nation-state. If they shut Starlink off, there was nothing the US or anyone else could do to replace it. They don’t even have that capability. And so we’re now at the whims of this very unpredictable human, [laughs] and very important thing.
Jeff: How much have Elon though, and you’ve written so much about him, how much is watch what I do not what I say?
Ashlee: His actions tend to speak much, much louder than his words for me. I don’t like many of the things he says on Twitter or the interviews. I’m not really sure why he’s chosen to be so acerbic and combative even with people who seem to adore him. If you are able to take a step back, Tesla, SpaceX, even Neuralink, this brain chip company he’s working on are in relatively fantastic shape and have changed the world. They could all disappear tomorrow and commercial space would still be real, and electric cars would still be real.
So, this human did have a huge impact on the world and I don’t see that stopping. He’s quite different in person than he is online and I think that’s what enabled this stuff to keep going.
Jeff: And finally, as it relates to the whole panoply of what we’ve been talking about because SpaceX and Elon have been so critical in moving this forward and launching this pun intended, to what extent is Mars still part of the dream of all of this?
Ashlee: The absolute dream for Elon and SpaceX and a couple of others. The part that I’m focused on with the satellites is independent of all that. But no, that’s Elon’s long-life goal is to have a human colony on Mars. Starship is pretty much entirely devoted to that quest. There’s now private companies that are building the first Mars rovers. We’ve never seen a private company think about putting something on Mars before. This will happen. I’m quite sure. And so this is happening. I think it’s going to inevitably take longer than people assume or hope for. Again, this whole commercial era is part of this and is going to drive this forward at speeds that we’re not accustomed to historically.
Jeff: Ashlee Vance. His book is When the Heavens Went on Sale: The Misfits and Geniuses Racing to Put Space Within Reach. Ashlee, it is always a pleasure. I thank you so much for spending time with us.
Ashlee: Thanks so much for the thoughtful questions.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you’ll join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.