Last month, Elon Musk's SpaceX successfully landed one of its Falcon 9 rockets back onto its launch pad. That accomplishment mirrored the November landing of the sub-orbital capsule New Shepard by Blue Origin, whose founder is Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.
Will the competition between these two Silicon Valley tech titans trigger a new era of commercial spaceflight? And if so, just how far might it take us?
Don Lincoln, senior physicist at Fermilab and space enthusiast, recently wrote a column on the Musk versus Bezos competition and joins us to share his insights.
Bezos, who is focused on commercial, sub-orbital space tourism, launched Blue Origin’s New Shepard reusable-rocket just beyond the 100-kilometer, internationally recognized edge of space complete with a historical vertical landing.
Below, watch the Blue Origin New Shepard landing
Not to be outdone by Bezos, Musk, who is determined to make trips to space more economical for interplanetary travel and has a vision to travel to Mars, launched an even larger, more powerful rocket that not only made it past the edge of space and into orbit, but also deployed 11 satellites before returning to Earth for its upright landing.
Watch the SpaceX Falcon 9 landing
"Chicago Tonight" on Thursday afternoon spoke with Lincoln by phone. Below, some highlights from our discussion.
Seems like people have been talking about the increasing commercialization of space for decades, why do you think it's taking so long?
“The commercial side is simply that a company has to turn a profit, and if you went to Mars, just getting there is enormously expensive and it’s not like you are going to immediately bring back something that will make it worth doing. So I think the issue there is the commercial return on this is not so obvious. So you need someone like Musk or someone else with a lot of money and a lot of vision who is willing to put a tremendous amount of money investing into something that will have no payback for a long time.
“The other thing is, if you think about the technical issues of going to Mars, all you need is one solar flare going in their direction and they’re dead.”
As you see it right now, what are the commercial incentives for anyone to get into the space travel or exploration business?
“Traveling and exploring space is done much more economically and much more safely robotically. There are very few places we could go. If we could go to Mars and there was air and water and we could throw a few corns seeds in the ground and grow, that would be great—but we would have to bring everything. So the rationale for exploration by people is going to have to wait until we find some way of making it economical. It’s really cost prohibitive and that’s why NASA—intelligently in my view—has gone toward robotic exploration, because for much less money and far less danger to astronauts we have managed to explore all the planets and gather tremendous knowledge.”
Musk and Bezos are both trying to usher in an era of commercial space flight, what do we know about their respective visions?
“What I know mostly is from what I read in the press. Musk’s stated vision is to make it to Mars. So of course that requires heavy-lifting, it requires orbital capabilities and it requires capabilities comparable to the Moon shot. So we are talking very serious, heavy-lifting type of rocketry. Bezos, on the other hand—at least in the near-term—is just talking about sub-orbital flights, so basically toward space tourism, very much like Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.”
What has been the attitude of your JPL and NASA colleagues to the likes of Musk and Bezos moving in on their territory?
“Well, a few people I know just kind of think that they could do it better. There’s some evidence that at least some people in the space community think these private endeavors are great because Musk and Bezos are able to hire people away from NASA. Engineers like difficult problems that they can solve and if a private company with true passion is focused on a difficult problem, you are going to get engineers that want to work on that.”