In 2019, President Donald Trump was already planning to end his second term in office with a mighty blast that would secure his place in history. He would get Americans back on the moon in 2024—four years sooner than NASA planned.
The last American astronaut to walk on the moon was Eugene Cernan, in December 1972, for Apollo 17. Those missions had been a momentous achievement, matching American technical mastery with human courage and the aspirational dreams of the whole world. But all that ambition suddenly dried up, like the arid dust on the lunar surface.
It was partly an inevitable pause. To have any lasting consequences like establishing permanent bases on the moon, future missions would need to be far more robust. The technology wasn’t yet ready for that.
Robotic exploration took over as the next amazing wave of space exploration, needing none of the hugely expensive life support systems of crewed missions. This cost-effective approach has been remarkable enough that a Mars rover can launch its own helicopter, collect and store geological samples, and oversee their return to Earth by an interplanetary version of FedEx.
One could argue that our best scientific minds should now be focused on the problems of our own planet—climate change, global pandemics—but somehow the appetite to blast humans off to worlds unknown never dies (even if it would be far more useful to use robotic missions to set up those off-world bases first). NASA has budgeted $50 billion for deep-space exploration, and it will certainly cost a lot more than that. International politics and the nationalistic urge for claiming new territory are motivating the next wave of human space travel, with Russia, India and China all upping their space games to compete with the U.S.
NASA is still working to meet the Trump deadline to the moon but, given the complexity, it was always a dubious target and looks even more so now. When and how it happens is likely to be decided by two men with very deep pockets and an increasingly bitter sense of rivalry: Jeff Bezos, with Blue Origin; and Elon Musk, with SpaceX.
In 2019, a few weeks after Trump’s order, Bezos applauded it: “I love this,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do.” He was publicly unveiling Blue Origin’s lunar lander, Blue Moon. But, like Trump, Bezos was underestimating the technical challenges. And underestimating Musk.
One unchanging thing governs every rocket launch: gravity. The bigger and heavier the spacecraft get, the bigger the rocket boosters need to be to propel them beyond gravity’s grip—to a speed of 17,500 miles an hour. All future missions depend on a new generation of giant boosters—really big boosters.
If all it took to succeed was a massive amount of money thrown at these projects, Bezos would have easily prevailed long before now. He amassed his many billions long before Musk. He set out a clear plan for Blue Origin in 2012, when Musk was still struggling with the trouble-plagued Tesla launch before he could apply himself to SpaceX.
Bezos’ original target for launching Blue Origin’s heavy lift rocket, New Glenn, was 2020. That has now slipped back to late 2022. Without New Glenn, Blue Origin is not capable of launching an orbital flight. Meanwhile, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets have delivered its Dragon capsules into orbit with such regularity that they are unchallenged for commuting to the International Space Station and ferrying cargo and people alike.
How has Musk so clearly surpassed Bezos?
It’s not simply about the hardware; it’s also about people. The differences in the two companies reflect the differences in the two men who own them. Recent revelations about a toxic and bureaucratically crippled workplace at Blue Origin offer some clues, but the cultural divide was baked in from the beginning. Blue Origin followed a conventional aerospace corporate model. SpaceX was far more like a Silicon Valley start-up driven by a charismatic leader.
That difference was made crystal clear in the summer of 2018 when Blue Origin’s CEO, Bob Smith, brought in management consultants to take a critical look at the company’s performance.
Senior managers were briefed on the results, and the website Ars Technica first revealed notes made by some of them. They were devastating. Some of the critiques were about contrasting technical choices made by the two companies, but the most consequential cultural differences were directly attributable to their leaders.
First, as was already well known, Musk is a tightwad. SpaceX “had a relentless focus on minimizing costs.” All purchase orders above $10,000 had been approved by Musk himself. Blue Origin, in contrast, was “riddled with poor cost estimating.”
Moreover, SpaceX was a relentless 24/7 operation with 80-hour workweeks, while “Blue is kind of lazy, a ghost town on weekends.” That didn’t mean that SpaceX engineers complained of working in a sweatshop. Quite the reverse: they were highly motivated to get results and, although they were generally paid less than they would have been at Blue Origin, they had Silicon Valley-type incentives like stock options that rewarded top performers. Musk annually culled the bottom 10 percent performers to keep standards high.
One Blue Origin manager wrote that they “should clean out the closets of those standing in the way of progress or not pulling their own weight.”
SpaceX’s president, the highly regarded Gwynne Shotwell, tellingly told a 2019 gathering of investors, “They [Blue Origin] have a ton of money and they’re not doing a lot. I think engineers think better when they’re pushed hardest to do great things in a very short period of time, with very few resources, not when you have 20 years.”
The critique also gave a striking picture of Musk’s daredevil temperament. Blue Origin engineers spent a lot of time analyzing systems in an attempt to identify where they might fail. Musk, on the other hand, liked to build prototypes and test them to breaking point, learning in real time how to make them better—even reveling in spectacular explosions and putting them out on YouTube, like a video titled How Not to Land an Orbital Rocket Booster that, to date, has been viewed 27 million times.
The Blue Origin managers complained about an executive suite that seemed aloof from the engineers and a rigid hierarchy in which it was difficult to get innovative ideas listened to at the top, whereas Musk likes to mix it personally with his engineers and is open to maverick proposals.
In short, Musk infected people with his own work ethic and his own visionary zeal, whereas Bezos remained a relatively unengaged authority figure who had a vision but depended too much on others to make it happen.
Bezos became the world’s richest man by inventing, from scratch, a global colossus that changed the way people shop. Musk, in contrast, gatecrashed two long-established businesses, automobiles and aerospace, that thought themselves invulnerable to creative disruption, and proved them wrong. With Blue Origin, Bezos ironically now finds himself among the disrupted rather than the innovators.
In fact, Musk’s program is gaining so much momentum that it’s difficult to see how Bezos can ever catch up.
SpaceX is developing its own version of Cape Canaveral at Boca Chica, Texas, a little over two miles north of the Mexican border. The epic scale of Musk’s plans to get to the moon and Mars was revealed in an environmental impact statement on the rocket base that the company submitted to the FAA in May.
Everything is focused on the combination of a new booster, the Super Heavy, and the vehicle that sits atop it, Starship. Together on the pad they stand 400 feet high.
The key difference between future moonshots and the Apollo program is that what goes into orbit this time is far larger. Of that 400 feet monster, Starship itself measures 165 feet and is 30 feet in diameter—about twice the width of a jumbo jet. For once, the echoes of the old science fiction vocabulary don’t seem out of place. Starship is the first machine that does actually look like a spaceship as imagined almost from the moment that Jules Verne conjured up the hardware of interplanetary rocket travel.
In his headlong surge toward an unassailable lead, Musk is reversing the normal pattern of testing the booster before the spaceship. The first thing to emerge on the pad at Boca Chica looked like a series of giant stainless steel garbage cans mounted by crane one on top of another. They were, in fact, the fuel tanks of Starship. Then the final cone, the part where the crew will be, was put in place and, lo!—there it was, the whole thing, ready to fire up.
What followed was a series of launches in which this improbably corpulent object performed a kind of St. Vitus’s dance, ascending until the motors shut down, tilting to an unsteady lateral course, descending to the pad in lurches, and then exploding in a ball of fire on contact. Nothing like it had ever happened on a NASA launch pad but this was part of the quintessential Musk method to keep fixing it until it works. Eventually, after four attempts, it did. Starship came back to Earth and survived to fly again.
Once it’s in space, Starship is designed to use its own powerful engines to go to the moon and, in theory, to Mars. But Musk’s plan, as outlined to the FAA, is to reach that point in a careful series of steps that allow for frequent failures and successes.
The first major tests will be uncrewed short suborbital flights from Boca Chica and a splashdown in the Pacific, near the island of Kauai, Hawaii. SpaceX aims to launch an astonishing 20 suborbital flights in a year. The plan also talks of “expending” both the Super Heavy boosters and Starships—in other words, allowing them to break up into junk rather than descend elegantly to a landing for reuse, as SpaceX’s current boosters do.
The activity planned for Boca Chica is intense. SpaceX has notified the local authorities that they will be required to close the surrounding area during launches for at least 500 hours a year. Operations could occur at all hours, with nights turned into day through a vast grid of white lights. Beyond the first wave of testing, plans are set out for up to five crewed missions a year to the moon and uncrewed missions to Mars.
Musk was awarded a $2.9 billion contract by NASA to meet that Trump-ordained target of a moon landing in 2024. Few think that, even with the manic effort going into the Starship program, he will meet that deadline. But nor will anyone else. Musk needn’t worry. He is way ahead of his competitors.