August 01, 2021

Bezos and Musk: Heralding a New Space Age or a Space Grab?

Prabir Purkayastha

THE space race was once between the Soviet Union and the United States. It is now – on the surface – between the three billionaires, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson. Two of them rode their sub-orbital flights, meaning that they cannot be considered as space flights as they did not reach a stable orbit around the earth. Branson’s ambitions are limited, more for a market for developing 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 to the International Space Station. So also Bezos with his company, Blue Origin.

Behind this apparent show of rich kids playing with their expensive space toys, there are bigger forces at play. It is how big capital is entering space flight, hitherto the exclusive domain of nation-states. While it appears that the rich kids with deep pockets are funding their respective space ventures, the reality is that it is the US taxpayers that are funding these space efforts. In this new space age, the US is also proposing to ride roughshod over the space agreements that space is global commons. The US would like to convert space as their “final frontier” and say that it belongs to any country that can “mine” its riches.

In the story of the current space race, we take for granted that the US had won the earlier space race over the Soviet Union, as they won the race to the moon. What is overlooked in this is that the space competition is not simply who sent the first man to the moon, but also who built the better rockets.

Strangely enough, it was the fall of the Soviet Union that brought out that Soviet technology produced rocket engines that had consistently outperformed the American ones. Post-1990, it was the Soviet-designed and Russian produced rocket engines – RD170 and RD180 – that powers the US Atlas rockets, the mainstay of the US heavy launch vehicles. Atlas rocket line is owned by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Even more surprising is that when Orbital Sciences (now a part of Northrup Grumman) was looking for launch vehicles for its Antares programme, they used Soviet-era 40-year old, moth-balled rocket engines. After one of them blew up – the ageing engines developing cracks – they switched their rocket engine. But again to Russian designed and produced RD181 engines!

At the same time that Russian rocket engines were becoming the mainstay of the US space programme, the US imposed sanctions on ISRO and Russia’s Glavkosmos. Glavkosmos was Russia's space marketing arm for selling cryogenic rocket engines and technology. These sanctions were only withdrawn after ISRO developed its own cryogenic engine technology. Russia’s contribution to India’s rocket programme was the seven cryogenic engines that it sold to ISRO, a part of the N1 upper stage of the Soviet Union’s moon mission.

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 the closed cycle rocket engines well before the Americans. For any rocket capable of space flight, it needs both fuel eg, kerosene, hydrogen, 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 pumping fuel and oxygen and exits directly into the atmosphere. This is a loss of efficiency for the engine which has to be compensated by carrying more fuel. In a closed cycle, or what is called “staged combustion”, the products of the first stage combustion powering the turbo compressor is fed to the main combustion chamber avoiding any loss of fuel. The 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 that this was simply not possible. They were shocked when visiting Russia in the 90s, they were shown the moth-balled engines of the ill-fated N1 project, the Soviet attempt of the moonshot. These were the engines that Orbital Sciences tried to use for their Antares programme before switching to more advanced Russian RD181 engines.

Post the Ukraine crisis of 2014, the US has imposed sanctions on many Russian companies. However, it still uses rocket engines sourced from Russia for its space programme, both civilian and military. After the US Space Shuttle programme was shut down in 2011, taking US astronauts to the International Space Station and bringing them back was left to Russian Soyuz rockets. It was only after SpaceX developed its space shuttle, that the US has a spacecraft for carrying its astronauts to the International Space Station.

The US Congress has decreed that the US companies will have to phase out the Russian engines from their new rocket launches by 2022. This is where Bezos and Musk come in, as both are vying for the future launches that NASA is planning. Though apparently Musk and Bezos are developing the rockets with their money, it is still NASA that is footing the bill. NASA pays upfront development costs and later, price per launch.

If the rocket engines are the key to any serious space programme, where does the US stand today? The 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. The other rocket engines in the fray are from Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Space Orbital, now a part of Northrop Grumman, is still to be 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 such 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, and is also competing with his suppliers with Amazon-branded products.

Musk claims to be the other visionary developing Tesla, the electric car of the future. While the existing automakers were slow to develop electric cars, Tesla had an edge of being the early mover and cashing in on the environmental regulations in various countries that demanded that 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 surplus carbon credits than other automakers. One of the key battery suppliers to Tesla is Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Ltd – CATL – the largest lithium battery manufacturer in the world. Its owner, Zeng Yuqun, has a net worth more than that of Jack Ma of Alibaba. What Musk has is a huge social media presence which he has leveraged in hyping 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 of grabbing space for its private companies. This violates the Outer Space Treaty. The US position is that while outer space is global commons, its commercial exploitation is open to all. This is a position they had on sea-bed mining in international waters as well. Such a policy privileges the powerful and technologically advanced states and 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.