The New Space Race
“There’s no need for NASA to build rockets for low earth orbit. The right thing to do is to turn it over to private industry.”
— Richard Garriott,
In early 2008, Fiscal Notes examined Constellation, NASA’s ambitious program to return man to the moon and ultimately take us to Mars. By 2010, however, the program was in serious jeopardy, due largely to rising costs and technical problems associated with the development of Ares I, a NASA-designed rocket intended to carry crew members to orbit.
In June of this year, the White House announced a new roadmap for manned space exploration, one that would use private companies to provide routine access to earth orbit, freeing NASA to concentrate on more difficult and distant missions. The proposal has proven highly controversial, pitting the enthusiastic support of “new space” companies and entrepreneurs against defenders of NASA’s traditional approach — and the thousands of jobs it provides.
Few are better equipped to discuss this transition period than Texan Richard Garriott, a key figure in the development of computer gaming who has devoted much of his life and fortune to expanding man’s reach into space. An astronaut’s son, Garriott is an investor in private space ventures, a board member of Space Adventures Ltd. and a member of the NASA Advisory Council. In October 2008, Garriott fulfilled a lifelong ambition by self-funding a 12-day trip to the International Space Station.
In this issue of Fiscal Notes, we begin an exclusive three-part discussion with Garriott on the outlook for privatized space travel — and Texas’ role in this new space race.
FN: You grew up as the son of an astronaut — they were families, friends and neighbors. Could you tell me that how that influenced the course of your life and interests?
Garriott: I think every kid grows up believing that their family situation is relatively normal, especially if your situation is the same as your neighbor’s.
My father was a NASA astronaut, my right-hand neighbor was Joe Engle, a shuttle astronaut, left-hand neighbor Hoot Gibson, another shuttle astronaut — and all the other astronauts, including Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, the well-known folks, all lived relatively nearby.
And my neighbors who weren’t astronauts were NASA scientists and engineers. I mean, it just seemed to me like everybody goes to space because everybody I know did go to space. It wasn’t till I went to college that I realized that my life wasn’t normal.
FN: Did you want to join the astronaut corps when you were a teenager, say?
Garriott: When I was a kid, I never said, “When I grow up I want to be an astronaut” — until one day I was getting my regular checkup at NASA and one of the doctors saw that my eyesight was going bad. He said, “Hey, Richard, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but you’re no longer eligible to become a NASA astronaut.”
“At the age of about 13, I devoted myself to the privatization of space.”
It was like being told you’re no longer eligible to be a member of the club that your father, your neighbors and all of your friends’ parents are members of. I was shocked.
And then, you know, after a brief period of anger and depression, I said, look, who is NASA to be the keeper of the keys to space? And so really, at the age of about 13, I devoted myself to the privatization of space — frankly, so I could go. And, you know, at the age of 13 you don’t really realize how phenomenally difficult that problem’s going to be.
But 30 years of perseverance, and having the good fortune to have made some money in the games industry, allowed me to press on. Eventually, it worked.
FN: Was gaming your avenue to get yourself in that position?
Garriott: Absolutely, yeah. Since 13, space always beckoned as the big prize, and the thing I continued to work towards.
FN: Your father first flew into space in 1973, toward the end of what you could call the “heroic” era of NASA. When you were young, where did you expect we would be in space by now?
Garriott: Well, I think that most everyone in the world probably believed in the 2001 vision of the future — wagon-wheel space stations generating artificial gravity and bases on the moon. We thought we’d be much further along.
“A lot of those people who were inspired by Apollo went into tech businesses.”
But look at the community of people who were inspired by that heroic era. Apollo did a great job of getting lots of people, especially in this nation, involved in science, technology, engineering and math.
And right on the heels of Apollo we saw the big tech boom, where America became a leader in the high-tech industry. And that, I believe, was not an accident.
A lot of those people who were inspired by Apollo went into tech businesses and helped create this renaissance of high tech we’ve been through. We now have wealth, and we’re turning to space.
I’m not the only example of that. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, now has a company called Blue Origin making rockets. Elon Musk, the founder of Paypal, is doing SpaceX, which just launched its Falcon 9 rocket, reaching orbit with a vehicle that will ultimately take cargo and potentially crew to the space station.
John Carmack, who did the Doom and Quake series of games, makes rockets now, too, at his Dallas company Armadillo Aerospace. In fact, my company, Space Adventures, just announced a partnership with him. He’s going to build a rocket that we’re going to fly to suborbital space.
And there’s more. I mean, I could list many more teams of commercial groups that are now pursuing space.
In addition, look at the traditional rocket builders — Boeing, the United Launch Alliance, Sierra Nevada Corporation — all these guys that have what I’ll call “tenure” in building for space. The people who lead those companies are in the same generation I am. They’re orphans of Apollo, too.
And they too feel generally like I do, which is that now is the time for us to take over the space race. Our generation is now in charge, really, in the prime contractors and all these entrepreneurial startups.
And across the board, that group of people is saying that the way for us to really push beyond earth orbit is to take the stuff we already know how to do reasonably well, like low earth orbit, and push that into commercial hands, and then let NASA focus on things that private industry truly can’t do yet, the really hard stuff, like visiting asteroids, the moon and Mars.
This has been repeated in history over and over — governments go first into the places that are too expensive, too risky for private industry. But once you’ve proven it can be done, if there’s value there, it turns over to them. And now is the time for space.
FN: Would you agree with people who feel that NASA shouldn’t be building its own launchers, as they were attempting to do with Ares?
Garriott: Well, I think that there’s no question that NASA can build rockets. They clearly have the skill. I just think there’s no need for NASA to build rockets for low earth orbit. And because there’s no need, the right thing to do is to turn it over to private industry.
I mean, NASA could go to Boeing and say, “You go buy the solid rocket boosters, you take care of the launch — I just want a launch service.” And even if the tab is a billion dollars, things will happen. If anybody can do it for half a billion, NASA’s going to buy from them.
And Space Adventures, or any other company — I can buy it too, whereas right now even if I had a billion dollars for a launch, NASA wouldn’t sell it to me. They’re not in the business of selling services.
And so you need to privatize these things. You know, fundamentally, there either is or isn’t value in going back to space. If there’s no value, none of us should be going. If there is value to be had in space, private industry should be there.
And only by getting the cost down and democratizing access to space do we have any prayer of making it anything other than the rarest of all human journeys. FN
Our conversation with Richard Garriott continues in our next issue. Learn more about Richard Garriott’s trip to the International Space Station.