The space race was once between the Soviet Union and the United States. It is now—at least on the surface—between the three billionaires Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson. The two rode sub-orbital flights, meaning they were not space flights, as they did not reach a stable orbit around the earth. Branson has limited ambitions, more to develop a market for the exotica of space tourism. Elon Musk and his SpaceX have been playing for the long haul with a series of rockets and launches, including one to the International Space Station. So has Bezos, with his company, Blue Origin.
Larger forces are at play behind this show of rich kids playing with expensive space toys. It is Big Capital entering space flight, hitherto the exclusive domain of nation-states. While it appears that the rich kids are funding their respective space ventures, the reality is that it is the US taxpayers who are doing so. In this new space age, the US is also proposing to ride roughshod over the agreements that declare space a global commons. The US would like to convert space into a “final frontier” that belongs to any country that can “mine” its riches.
In the story of the current space race, we take for granted that the US triumphed over the Soviet Union in the earlier space race, as they won the race to the moon. What gets overlooked in this is that the space competition is not simply over who sent the first man to the moon but also who built better rockets.
Strangely enough, the fall of the Soviet Union brought to light that Soviet technology produced rocket engines that consistently outperformed American ones. After 1990, Soviet-designed and Russian-produced rocket engines—the RD180 and RD181—powered the US Atlas rockets, which are the mainstay of the US heavy launch vehicles. The Atlas rocket line is owned by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin with Boeing. Even more surprising is that when Orbital Sciences (now a part of Northrop Grumman) was looking for launch vehicles for its Antares program, they used the 40-year-old mothballed Soviet-era NK-33 rocket engines. After one of them blew up—the ageing rocket engines developed cracks—they switched engines, but to another Russian-designed and produced engine, the RD181!
While Russian rocket engines were becoming the mainstay of the US space program, the US imposed sanctions on ISRO and Glavkosmos, the Russian space marketing arm, to sell cryogenic rocket engines and technology. These sanctions got withdrawn after ISRO developed its own cryogenic engine technology. Russia contributed seven cryogenic engines, part of the N1 upper stage of the Soviet Union moon mission, to ISRO for India’s rocket program.
Why did the Soviet-era rockets perform better than the US rockets? Rockets burn fuel and are powered by high-velocity exhaust gases. The Soviets had mastered what is called closed cycle rocket engines well before the Americans. Any rocket capable of space flight needs both fuel, for example, kerosene, hydrogen or methane, and a burning medium such as oxygen. In an open cycle rocket engine, a part of the fuel does not reach the main combustion chamber as it is used to power a turbo-compressor that pumps fuel and oxygen and exits directly into the atmosphere. It is a loss of efficiency for the engine, which has to get compensated by carrying more fuel. In a closed cycle, or what is called a “staged combustion”, the products of the first stage combustion powering the turbo compressor are fed to the main combustion chamber, avoiding loss of fuel.
Soviet engineers had solved the problem of materials that had to withstand the extremely harsh conditions of injecting the products of oxygen-rich combustion into the main combustion chamber. The US engineers thought this was simply not possible. They were shocked when on a visit to Russia in the 90s, they were shown the mothballed engines of the ill-fated N1 project, the Soviet moonshot attempt. These were the engines that Orbital Sciences tried to use for their Antares program, christening them AJ-26 before switching to the more advanced Russian RD-181 engines.
After the Ukraine crisis of 2014, the US imposed sanctions on many Russian companies. However, it still uses rocket engines sourced from Russia for its civilian and military space programs. After the US Space Shuttle program was shut down in 2011, taking US astronauts to the International Space Station and bringing them back was left to Russian Soyuz rockets. Only after SpaceX developed its space shuttle did the US get a spacecraft to carry its astronauts to the International Space Station.
The US Congress has decreed that the US companies will have to phase out Russian engines from their military rocket launches by 2022. This is where Bezos and Musk come in. Both are vying for future launches that the US military and NASA is planning. Though Musk and Bezos are apparently developing the rockets with their money, NASA is still footing the bill. NASA pays upfront development costs, and later, a price per launch.
If the rocket engines are the key to any serious space program, where does the US stand today? ULA, the Boeing and Lockheed Martin joint venture, has to switch to the US-made engine as per the new NASA requirement. It has chosen the BE-4 rocket engine from Blue Origin, Bezos’ new space initiative, though ULA is reportedly unhappy with delays. The other rocket engines in the fray are from SpaceX. Space Orbital, now a part of Northrop Grumman, still appears tied to Russian engines for its cargo services to the Space Station. So, the US rocket engines seem to be restricted to BE-4 from Blue Origin of Bezos and Space X Falcon/Raptor engines. The American space race is essentially a two-horse race between two new super-rich billionaires.
How do Bezos and Musk fund their space ventures? The public believes it is money that the “visionary” billionaires have made from their genius of making money, a version of Ayn Rand’s “hero”. The brutal truth is that Bezos, as a capitalist, has squeezed his workers, increasing their workload so much that they are unable to take even bathroom breaks. Amazon pays its workers wages below subsistence which need to be supplemented by social welfare. He has destroyed the small retail sector, as well as competing with his suppliers with Amazon-branded products.
Musk claims to be the other visionary developing Tesla, the electric car of the future. While existing automakers were slow to develop electric cars, Tesla had the early mover edge. It cashed in on environmental regulations in various countries that demanded automakers earn carbon credits by selling a certain percentage of their output as electric cars. For example, in the first quarter of this year, almost the entire profits of Tesla came from carbon credits it sells to other automakers. Since Tesla makes only electric cars, it has a surplus of carbon credits. The key to electric cars is the batteries, which Tesla outsources. One of the primary battery suppliers to Tesla is Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Ltd.—CATL—the largest lithium battery manufacturer. Its owner, Zeng Yuqun, has a net worth more than Jack Ma of Alibaba. What Musk has is a massive social media presence, and he has leveraged it to hype up his auto, and now space, ventures.
The other disturbing aspect of the new space age ushered in by the space billionaires is the US policy to grab space for its private companies. It violates the Outer Space Treaty. The US position is that while outer space is global commons, its commercial exploitation is open to all. It is a position they took on sea-bed mining in international waters as well. Such a policy privileges the powerful and technologically advanced states and is another name for enclosing the global commons.
Behind this hype of a new space-age is the reality of a new space grab. This is what Bezos and Musk represent: a new space age in which the billionaires can leave this world they are destroying in the hope of new lands to conquer and again destroy.