At dawn one morning last November—just as the edge of Earth comprising Florida spun into the field of light bursting from roughly 93 million miles away—she emerged one last time from the monstrous doors of the Vehicle Assembly Building, twelve stories long but dwarfed. This was what had been billed as the “final mission” of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, a 9.8-mile journey to her final resting place at the Kennedy Space Center’s visitors’ complex. That Atlantis’s journey would begin at the VAB—525 feet tall, the largest single-story structure in the world, having sprouted a half-century ago in the frenzy of the space race, as stupendous an achievement as each of the space-faring rockets that would be assembled inside it—multiplied the emotion.
Very far away, still sheathed in its massive launch-apparatus exoskeleton, one could make out Launchpad 39A, site of the historic Apollo 11 moonwalking blastoff, where Atlantis had also taken off to orbit the Earth, once more and finally, in 2011, marking the last in NASA’s 30-year-old shuttle program. The other surviving orbiters, Discovery and Endeavor, had already completed their extraordinary processionals to museums in northern Virginia and Los Angeles (the latter requiring hundreds of trees cut and roadways reconfigured to accommodate its size). A throng of personnel was on hand, those who had built and maintained and flown her, including some of the 7,000 whose jobs were ending with the program. With signs and T-shirts that read WE LOVE YOU ATLANTIS and THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES and WE MADE HISTORY, they fell in behind her. Many wiped away tears as she crept along at two miles an hour, past the dense, still swampland that had, many times before, exploded along with her, the alligators and pigs and birds flushing at her ignition, the fish heaving themselves from the water, the light from the trail of fire flashing from their scales.
Now the procession was funereal. For NASA’s public-relations machine, desperate to engage Americans’ notoriously fickle interest, it would amount to an odd victory: Stories about Atlantis’s retirement appeared in media outlets across the globe, all written as obituaries. The events of the following evening were equally bleak: A formal dinner at the nearby Radisson commemorating the mission of Apollo 17, whose lunar module had closed its hatch 40 years earlier and ferried the last man back from the moon. In attendance were ten surviving Apollo astronauts, an extraordinary group to say the least, the only men to have traveled to the moon, now gray-haired or bald. Their fears for the nation’s space future were well aired; many of them—including the famously reticent Neil Armstrong, whose recent death had cast a significant pall—had written letters to President Obama saying his space policy portended the nation’s “long downhill slide to mediocrity.” Just as China rushes to land on the moon by the end of this decade, the astronauts noted ruefully, the U.S. is now essentially vehicleless. For a taxpayer-funded fare of almost $71 million per seat, American astronauts are now taxied to the International Space Station by their former archenemies, the Russians, aboard the old, reliable Soyuz rockets against which NASA once raced. The delivery of cargo is now outsourced to private companies. In a tear-stained column titled “In an Earthbound Era, Heaven Has to Wait,” the Times’s Frank Bruni said that for Americans already “profoundly doubtful” and “shaken,” the shuttle’s end “carries the force of cruel metaphor, coming at a time when limits are all we talk about. When we have no stars in our eyes.”
All of which made the scene I’d observed in a desert town in southern New Mexico a week earlier even more exceptional.
In a landscape redolent of Mars, a group of scientists, many of them young NASA astronauts recently decamped to private industry, practically evangelized about this very moment: Unbeknownst to most of the world, after decades of failed Jetsons-esque promises of individual jetpacks for all, people—civilians, you and me, though with a good deal more means—are finally about to ascend to the heavens. If the twentieth-century space race was about the might of the American government, the emerging 21st-century space age is about something perhaps even more powerful—the might of money. The necessary technology has converged in the hands of a particularly boyish group of billionaires whose Right Stuff is less hard-boiled test-pilot, more high-tech entrepreneuring wunderkind—and whose individual financial means eclipse those of most nations. A massive industry is coalescing around them. Towns and states and even some countries are fighting one another for a piece of it. In New Mexico, workers are putting the finishing touches on the first of at least ten spaceports currently under construction around the world. More than 800 people have paid as much as $200,000 apiece to reserve seats on commercial flights into space, some of which are expected to launch, at long last, within a year. Space-travel agents are being trained; space suits are being designed for sex appeal as much as for utility; the founder of the Budget hotel chain is developing pods for short- and long-term stays in Earth’s orbit and beyond. Over beers one night, a former high-ranking NASA official, now employed by Sir Richard Branson of the Virgin transportation conglomerate, put it plainly: “We happen to be alive at the moment when humanity starts leaving the planet.”
At the New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum in the town of Las Cruces, exhibitors were gathered in booths and behind tables, hawking propulsion technology and ballistics and aerospace engineering specialties of all sorts, offering schwag of stress-ball planets, literature, and DVDs with stars or spaceships or contrails as cover art. Standing conspicuously in the middle of the room was a life-size fiberglass spacefaring vessel called the Lynx, developed by a small California company called XCOR Aerospace. Dr. Lee Valentine, a primary investor, insisted I climb inside.
This was the International Symposium for Personal and Commerical Spaceflight. It had been co-founded eight years earlier by a New Mexico State professor named Pat Hynes, who had been studying and advocating for the commercial potential of space for twenty years. She has watched the conference grow in size and influence alongside the industry. Now, the facility buzzed with engineers and scientists and entrepreneurs and astronauts. Sponsors included Lockheed Martin and Boeing, a European company touting its ability to “launch any payload to any orbit at anytime,” and another company claiming the authority to sell plots of land on the moon. Hynes, ecstatic, inaugurated the conference by shouting a “Let’s rock this house!” welcome, before introducing Michael Lopez-Alegria, a recently retired space-shuttle astronaut who spoke of his conversion from “skeptic with outright disdain for the idea of commercial space” to a “Kool-Aid-pouring believer” in the private space industry.
The overall feeling was the kind emitted by a group of people who know things others do not, or at least not yet, which was reinforced by several current events. Three days earlier, in one of the most elaborate marketing stunts in history, 43-year-old Austrian Felix Baumgartner had ridden, on behalf of Red Bull, a capsule tethered to a helium balloon to a height of 127,852 feet, perched himself, and fallen, breaking the sound barrier and dropping 844 miles per hour until he landed safely in the scrubland two hours east of here. More significant, a capsule owned by the company SpaceX was careering 250 miles above us, in rendezvous with the International Space Station, on behalf of NASA, marking the first transport of cargo to the station by a private company.
There are at least ten companies seriously engaged in commercial space transport. SpaceX, created by billionaire PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, has emerged as the early leader in the three-way race sponsored by the U.S. government to develop a long-term system to replace the shuttle, to handle NASA flights to Earth’s orbit. (Its competitors include two established aerospace companies, Boeing and Sierra Nevada.) Others, like XCOR and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, are focusing on suborbital space, which is easier and less expensive to reach and, for the near future, more accommodating to tourists. One company, Space Adventures, already facilitates tourist flights—starting at $22 million—with the Russians to the International Space Station. Budget Suites founder Robert Bigelow’s company, Bigelow Aerospace, is planning to build space stations of its own. Perhaps the most ambitious (and secretive) company is Blue Origin, founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, which is designing several vehicles, including a vertically launching and landing craft, meant to take people into orbital Earth and beyond.
All of this is taking place with the full encouragement of NASA, which has repositioned itself as something of a midwife to the nascent industry. At ISPCS, Lori Garver, the agency’s deputy administrator, shared her hope that one day she could “sit in the back anonymously [in] the natural progression of the industry taking more and more of this capability on itself.” During a break from government work in 2001, Garver had attempted to raise $20 million to buy a seat aboard the Soyuz rocket to the space station, enrolling in training in Star City, Russia, and launching the “AstroMom” project to solicit corporate sponsorship. (The singer Lance Bass knocked her out of contention, though he failed to raise the $20 million and ended up not flying.) She spoke of the free market with Randian fervor, and cited the Renaissance, Da Vinci, and Michelangelo; the Wright brothers, Samuel Langley, and Glenn Curtiss; Steve Jobs and Bill Gates; “Bezos and Musk.” She said she was “so proud that NASA can play a small role” and thanked us in the audience “for creating a space-faring civilization.”
The perestroika of space was on display elsewhere. Army brigadier general Gwen Bingham of the nearby White Sands Missile Range—one of the country’s largest military installations, the birthplace of American rocketry, the clandestine setting of the first successful detonation of an atomic weapon—cued up an extended commercial featuring dramatic music and imagery of missiles, bombs, and rockets, as a voice-over ticked off the base’s “runways!”; “urban environment simulation!”; “environmental test chambers!”; “unmanned systems!”; “material testing!”; “meteorological effects!” She bragged that her base enjoys the only nuclear-effects facility within the Defense Department, perfect for “the various testing of your space portfolio.” Behind her the screen read WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE—WE’RE MORE THAN JUST MISSILES.
Now I was seated inside the cockpit of XCOR’s Lynx mock-up. (The real one was under construction in California and is scheduled to begin test flights in the second half of this year.) The instrumentation on the dash was fake, like the electronics in a room display at Ikea, and inside the plane smelled like an amusement-park ride. Valentine, chairman of the board of the Space Studies Institute, touted the Lynx as “one piece, gas and go,” carrying one pilot and one passenger in the cockpit, taking off and landing horizontally from a runway as frequently as four times a day. It was designed as a hybrid rocket and plane.
“This is the real astronaut experience,” Valentine said proudly. To date, 220 people have put down deposits for XCOR’s $95,000 ride, and Valentine talked me through the experience these customers can anticipate as soon as next year. There will be NASA-style g-force training and a NASA-style pressure suit. More than anything, there will be the view—a view that had eluded mankind until just 50 years ago, and one that only a few hundred people have seen in person: Earth. Space. And Valentine wanted me to know that his company’s would offer the superior opportunity. “This is a wraparound cockpit, with fifteen or twenty times the viewing area the Virgin folks get,” he said.
The flight itself will comprise a half-hour. The Lynx will take off with tremendous power, becoming supersonic a minute after ignition, reaching 190,000 feet within the next three minutes. Following engine burnout, its momentum will continue its acceleration through Mach 2 and Mach 3 and, finally, above 62 miles, the Karman Line, the somewhat arbitrary delineation of space, above which an aircraft must travel faster than Earth’s orbital velocity to generate enough lift to stay aloft. There, thinning atmospheric gasses diffuse blue wavelengths of light, creating a cobalt halo above the planet’s edge. It will hang momentarily before beginning its 25-minute glide back to Earth.
“It’ll be a helluva ride,” Valentine said.
Before Musk and Bezos and the others, there was Sir Richard Branson: white-blond-haired and ruddy, a first-generation billionaire, the entrepreneur-adventurer son of a lawyer and a flight attendant who’d parlayed a mail-order record business into a music label into a transportation conglomerate and mobile-phone company, and who, in 1999, based on a lifelong love of space, parlayed all that into the beginnings of the world’s first spaceline, Virgin Galactic. Branson says that his motivation for starting Virgin Galactic was “frustration”—personal, and on behalf of mankind. “Only a few people had been to space, and the government was not interested in you or I going,” he told me recently. Though he also admitted to other interests: “I’m in the airline business. I want to see our rivals’ face as we pass them in the air many, many times the speed of their planes.”
Getting there has proved difficult. First there was the issue of a spacecraft. On October 4, 2004, on the 47th anniversary of the Sputnik’s launch, a spacecraft financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen completed its second successful test flight to suborbital space in a span of two weeks and won the Ansari X Prize (the $10 million competition modeled after contests that had spurred Charles Lindbergh’s first solo flight across the Atlantic). Amid tremendous hoopla, Branson signed an agreement to make the vehicle Virgin Galactic’s spaceline. Flights were said to be imminent. They were not. In 2007, a rocket motor exploded during testing, killing three people. There were more delays. The public lost interest, and a pessimism took hold, a sense that commercial space travel would remain an Icarus-like farce. “There have been plenty of skeptics out there,” Branson said. “But we’ve got to a place now where there’s no going back.”
Virgin Galactic’s CEO is a 39-year-old American named George Whitesides, who I met one evening after ISPCS. The son of a legendary chemist, he is himself a nonscientist who decided to devote his life to space one night in Tunisia, while studying women’s rights in the Islamic world on a Fulbright scholarship, when he found himself walking on the shore of the Mediterranean beneath an impossibly starry sky. He’s worked for Virgin for three years—recruited by Branson from NASA, where he served as the administrator’s chief of staff—but has been a customer for almost a decade: He and his wife, self-described “space geeks,” were among the first to set down a combined $400,000 for Virgin’s then-rather-speculative flights. It was meant, even at the time, to be a delayed honeymoon. So how close were they now, I asked as we sat in the lobby of a hotel in Las Cruces?
“We’re so close I can taste it,” he said.
I asked if he could say categorically that flights would commence within five years.
“Five years?” he said incredulously. “You bet your ass!”
Whitesides pointed to the company’s waiting list of over 500 future passengers. While Virgin Galactic is mostly funded by the privately owned Virgin Group, each of these customers has paid at least a $20,000 deposit, and more than half have written a check for the full $200,000, thus ensuring they remain at the front of the queue. He said Branson is “putting his money and his body where his mouth is. He’s putting, almost more importantly, the bodies of his children where his mouth is.” (Branson has announced that the entire family, save his wife—including potentially his 88-year-old mother—is slated to fly together.) Whitesides predicted that within the next few months, Virgin Galactic would install the rocket into its most recent iteration of the spacecraft, SpaceShipTwo, and fire it. “With SpaceShipOne, it took three flights before it went into space,” he said. “We’ll probably have five or six, but pretty quickly we’ll get to space altitude. And so the start of powered flight means that we are not far from spaceflight.”
Two days later, I was driven across the beautiful, inhospitable desert of southern New Mexico to see for myself where these flights to space will begin: Spaceport America. The spaceport is only 50 miles from Las Cruces, but the road off Interstate 25 still wasn’t paved, and so the drive took two hours. Finally, it appeared in the distance, rising almost imperceptibly from the scorched brown sands. It looked futuristic but also prehistoric, as if a giant UFO had crash-landed here thousands of years earlier or burrowed underground like the alien spacecraft in the movie Prometheus.
The spaceport’s roots stretched back a decade, to the day when Bill Richardson showed up at Virgin’s London office and identified himself as the governor of New Mexico, hoping to speak with someone about why his state was would be a perfect home for Virgin Galactic. No one at the office had ever heard of Richardson, or could even place New Mexico on a map. He was handed off to a low-level flack, who pushed him up, and up, and up, until a few weeks later he and Branson were in a helicopter hovering over the grounds on which the spaceport now stood.
Richardson told me he was motivated by a high-minded, lifelong love of space as well as a practical belief, from his years of watching budget wrangling in Congress, that space exploration would need to be privatized. To him, a spaceport offered jobs and infrastructure and an economic base for southern New Mexico, plus the possibility of driving space science in the state’s universities. When oil and gas revenues led to a budget surplus, he sensed an opportunity. Motivated to beat out other, bigger states with large space infrastructures, he began courting Branson personally. “Everything he touched seemed to be gold—movies, commercial aircraft, space; the brand of Branson attracted me enormously,” Richardson says. He told Branson he could “make this happen” and convinced the state to offer $209 million of financing. He considers the spaceport—where the runway bears his name—one of his highest achievements as governor and says that Arnold Schwarzenegger is still jealous that he landed it.
A lone, elderly security guard took our licenses before waving us in. We drove onto the grounds, then around the rear of the building, where its vastness became fully apparent, an entire glass wall rising six stories, reflecting back the landscape: endless desert, blue sky, clouds swirling in wisps. We cruised down the more-than-two-mile runway. We could see, at the tallest point of the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space, a bar that will be accessible only to Virgin customers upon their return to Earth. It has been designed, in typical Branson understatement, to be “the most exclusive bar in the galaxy.”
My guide was Carolyn Wincer, 36, the head of travel and tourism for Virgin Galactic, who grew up on a dairy farm in rural New Zealand and, at 20, lucked into a job in London working reservations for Branson’s consortium of high-end rental properties. In the post-9/11 tourism slump, she took a position no one else in the company had wanted, handling reservations for Necker Island, Branson’s private compound in the British Virgin Islands. What was essentially a personal-assistant job morphed into a more substantial career in Branson’s tourism business, and in 2011, she was given the reins to build Virgin Galactic’s marketing and customer infrastructure, settling in Las Cruces.
We went inside for a tour. Virgin has signed a twenty-year, $200 million lease to be the spaceport’s anchor tenant, which has allowed the spaceline to have a strong say in the build-out. The shape of the terminal is basically parabolic, with banks and walls of exterior windows forming arcs to correspond with the structure. The construction was still wrapping up; doors were held open by screwdrivers. Wincer and a colleague were returning the following day to do some cleaning, as the 94 official “space agents” authorized to book Galactic’s flights were flying in from around the world to see the facility. But even in this state, the space was vast and gleaming white. Most impressive was the soaring, 110,000-square-foot hangar, the future home of five SpaceShipTwo rocket planes, which will carry passengers, and two WhiteKnightTwo launch “mother ships,” which will effectively taxi the rocket planes up the first 50,000 feet.
Upstairs is Mission Control, which overlooks the giant runway. There is a room for medical evaluations and another room for suiting up (the space suits will be skintight, with curved helmets shaped like alien heads). There is a special “astronaut elevator,” reserved for ticket holders, who will ride down, say good-bye to their families, and then exit a giant rear door and climb inside their rocket plane for the two-hour trip.
I wondered: Who are these future astronauts? Wincer likens the situation to the old cell phone, “a Motorola brick,” which took ten years to develop, cost nearly $4,000 to buy, required ten hours to recharge, and offered 30 minutes of talk time—and yet “thousands of people put their names on a waiting list to buy one.” Virgin’s customers are similar: early adopters with abundant faith. Some are wealthy and famous, like Russell Brand, Ashton Kutcher, and Victoria Principal; others are mortgaging their houses to afford the trip. There is Wally Funk, a 74-year-old pilot who trained as one of thirteen women during the early Mercury flights but never had the chance to fly. Together, the Virgin ticket-holders are from more than 50 countries and range in age from 18 to 83. Some have died waiting (one in a skiing accident); others have pulled out for financial reasons (one was a Bernie Madoff victim). People who drop out pay a cancellation penalty.
Wincer is frequently asked if customers can bring children. Several parents have attempted to give flights as sweet-sixteen birthday gifts; one customer, she said, “at the moment is desperate to let her 12-year-old fly.” The FAA had yet to address such questions, and Wincer sees it as a matter of informed consent, of which she thinks a 12-year-old is not capable. Many customers have their own private pilot’s license, and many others are scared of flying or small spaces. She had just read a profile of one client who is terrified of roller coasters: “Jesus,” she said. She imagines there will eventually be two main constituencies: financially secure thirty- and fortysomethings and “retirees who are like, Screw the inheritance.” She predicts the market will expand substantially when people begin seeing “the slightly normal, slightly overweight person go first.”
Virgin Galactic expects its customers to be “of reasonable health.” Some who have applied are badly ill, space being something of a dying wish, and Wincer said these cases will be evaluated individually with input from a medical team. I asked about drug testing and the possibility of someone panicking. They were still working through this, she told me, though they hope the vetting and preflight training will weed out most problems. Still, Wincer is trying to think of everything. She has raised the question, for instance, of where people at the spaceport will smoke. Her colleagues have fought her on this—there can be no smoking anywhere—and she agrees that this is best, but she also knows from her experience in luxury tourism that “no” is not an answer. She anticipates there will be all kinds of personalities, including bored relatives, waiting back at the spaceport while their loved one is in flight, “like, doing coke in the bathroom.” Some have inquired about having sex in space; she has reminded them there will be a crew and four other passengers. (Though, ever accommodating, Virgin Galactic does offer charters and even a discount: six seats for a million dollars.)
We were standing outside now, as Wincer smoked a Marlboro Red. I wondered whether she wanted to go. She recalled a moment when she was a very young child, in the bathtub, and her mother handed her a bubble-bath bottle shaped like the Saturn V rocket. Later that night, her mother pointed to the moon outside. Wincer grew up assuming that visiting space “would never happen for a person like me.” Now she was planning to join other Virgin employees in early test flights.
There was a breeze, and the building looked magnificent. Standing there, it was hard not to think back to when man first tried this, in the first Mercury flights from Cape Canaveral. Legendary NASA flight director Gene Kranz later remembered how shocked he was to arrive on the launchpad, how “stark, awkward, and crude” the spacecraft looked, “a large black-and-white stovepipe atop a simple cradle.” Now, only 50 years later, there was a commercial spaceport with Virgin Galactic as its anchor spaceline, somewhat like what Delta is to La Guardia or United to Newark Liberty.
“It’s all part of a bigger journey,” Whitesides had told me back at the hotel. In the history of mankind, 531 people have visited space so far. “We have 540 people signed up today,” he said. “We’ll fly those in the first year of operation.” In less than a decade, Virgin will have flown tens of thousands of flights and, in so doing, “fundamentally recast human beings’ relationship with the space frontier.” Within ten years, he foresees so-called point-to-point space travel. There will also be ramifications closer to home; a flight from New York to Tokyo will take 45 minutes. Current plane rides “will be like the buggy,” he said, “like going from New York to London in two weeks.”
He was adamant. “I think it’s really exciting,” he said, banging the table. “And it’s fun as a human who’s only alive for a hundred years, in order of magnitude, to be part of something that will last a million years.”
At 10:39 a.m. on January 16, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia departed from Kennedy Space Center for its 28th mission, the 113th of the shuttle program. There had been, in retrospect, signs, or at least bits of irony. Such as: During a gathering the night before liftoff, a friend’s teenage daughter slipped a piece of paper to Mission Specialist Laurel Clark, which she stuffed in her purse and opened later—a drawing of an angel fallen to Earth. Or, as Rick Husband was talking to his wife in a video feed not long before Columbia was to return home, she watched as the screen froze just as they were about to say good-bye, so that as she sat there, the image of him staring at the camera, in the orbiter spinning high around the world, she repeated that she loved him.
Columbia had been the first of the fleet of shuttles to reach the Earth’s orbit, in 1981, following in the wake of Apollo and the moon race and marking the next generation of human spaceflight. The primary goal of the shuttle program was simple: to create a reusable space vehicle that could transport materials to and from the International Space Station. But the execution ended up far more complex; designed for 100 missions each, over the course of 30 years the five orbiters had flown only 135 missions, with one of them, Challenger’s tenth, in 1986, ending in tragedy 73 seconds after liftoff.
Inside Columbia’s crew compartment, the seven astronauts adjusted to all kinds of space idiosyncrasies and marvels. Mission Specialist Kalpana Chawla related a moment when she watched as the orbiter arced beyond another sunset: “You can still see the Earth’s surface and the dark sky overhead, and I could then see my reflection in the window, and in the retina of my eye, the whole Earth and the sky.” They worked in two shifts, red and blue, their days—“days” was something of a misnomer, since they experienced sixteen sunrises and sunsets in each 24-hour period—scheduled almost down to the minute. They grew flowers, incubated bacteria, tended to rats. They were in constant communication with Mission Control in Houston, which was aware that an estimated 1.67-pound piece of foam had dislodged from the external fuel tank 81.7 seconds into liftoff. The crew was alerted only in passing, in an e-mail that called the occurrence “not even worth mentioning.” The truth is there was nothing that could be done about it anyway. As a senior NASA official had told a colleague, “Don’t you think it would be better for them to have a happy, successful flight and die unexpectedly during entry than to stay in orbit, knowing that there was nothing to be done, until the air ran out?”
On February 1, they were cleared for reentry. They fired the orbital engines to slow the shuttle from its speed of 17,500 miles per hour and slip out of orbit. They pitched the nose at 40 degrees. Somewhere high above the Pacific Ocean, a breach in a carbon tile on the left wing’s leading edge, just inches across, began to spread. Aboard Columbia, they continued their checklists. In Houston, telemetry began betraying problems; data ceased coming from the left wing. Thirty-eight miles above eastern Texas, traveling at eighteen times the speed of sound, the orbiter pitched, it began spinning, the left wing having folded over or broken away. The nose of the shuttle—the crew capsule—ripped away. It remained intact for roughly 35 seconds. The cabin lights went black; there was just plasma flashing out the windows. Sitting in their seats, the crew must have struggled, at least momentarily; their “subsequent exposure to hypersonic entry conditions,” a report would later find, “was not survivable by any means.” They plunged 60,000 feet, to an estimated altitude of 28 miles. Inside the capsule, the atmospheres mixed, until finally the module opened completely and the thin, freezing, blue-black sky burst in.
The ramifications of the destruction of Columbia were enormous, reaching much further than just the space-shuttle program, which was already living on borrowed time. It forced the turning of a page that many in and around NASA had fought desperately for decades and led, in many ways, directly to the increasing commercialization of space. President George W. Bush responded to the disaster by announcing one of the most sweeping space plans in American history, tying it more explicitly to national security (sending manned missions to the moon, and from there to Mars and beyond, before the Chinese do the same) and incentivizing private industry to expand their role. By 2009, Bush’s program was severely overbudget, underfunded, and behind schedule; Obama canceled most of it, adopting a “flexible path” that rejected a return to the moon and called for an incremental approach to reaching Mars, while maintaining and even accelerating the private industry’s involvement.
Today, Kennedy Space Center is an odd place, not so much changed in aesthetics from the days of Apollo, when, as the author Craig Nelson has written, anyone attending a launch expecting “a Tomorrowland of PeopleMovers and personal jet packs” arrived to find “a scattering of utilitarian 1960s office buildings, generic assembly factories, and sheds made from slabs of concrete topped with corrugated metal, set against an outback of pine, scrub, and palm.” About 8,500 people work there, down from a shuttle-era high of 13,000. But the funeral dirges seemed to have sounded prematurely. In fact, NASA may be emerging from all this leaner, more nimble, and—crucially—more sustainable. The Vehicle Assembly Building is humming with activity, being reconfigured to handle a host of possible commercial crafts coming online, as well as nasa’s Space Launch System—intended to ferry astronauts beyond orbit and into deep space—whose development is said to be running ahead of schedule, with test flights slated for 2017. Assembly of a deep-space capsule, called Orion, is continuing nearby, and launchpads are being retrofitted. (This is to say nothing of nasa’s ongoing unmanned programs—Voyager, the Hubble telescope, the Mars rovers—which many scientists consider to be of vastly greater consequence.) Several new companies have cropped up along the Space Coast, including an outpost of XCOR and a company called Rocket Crafters Inc. There is a sign placed prominently in a KSC field advertising SPACE AVAILABLE.
At the retiring of the Atlantis last fall, I spoke with two middle-aged engineers who were watching the procession next to me. Jack Hoffman had been at Kennedy from 1965 until his retirement in 1996; Mark Wollam had been at NASA since 1988. Like everyone I spoke with, they used the word “bittersweet” to describe their feelings. They said everyone at KSC knew the shuttle program would end soon after the Columbia disaster, a decision they did not necessarily oppose, given how long the shuttles had flown. Still, they were critical of NASA’s recent decisions. “I think what the space program needs, and I’m not sure how they’re going to get it, is a more defined goal that’s publicly supported,” Bill said. “Like the moon landing—the moon landing was the idea.” Mark elaborated: “The thing is,” he said, “if we don’t do something, there will be Chinese astronauts on the moon making colonies. We will be left behind.”
I heard this same refrain the following night, at the 40th anniversary reception for the Apollo 17, where ten members of the moon-landing program sat on a stage and reminisced. Dick Gordon of Apollo 12 described the harrowing experience of the Saturn V rocket being hit by lightning seconds into flight, so that Houston lost a chunk of its electrical data until a novel reboot could be figured out on the fly. Fred Haise of Apollo 13, the ill-fated flight that suffered an explosion en route to the moon, noted that he never felt safe until the capsule had splashed back into one of Earth’s roiling oceans, and “the two chutes are open, and you look out the window, and you knew you were probably going to be okay.” The astronauts mourned the death of Armstrong and paid homage to the three friends they lost on the launchpad in Apollo 1. This was what spaceflight was for them: novel, heroic, dangerous, utterly unpredictable. They were pioneers, part of the most exclusive club in history, and few were supportive of the most recent developments in space exploration, with billionaires building their own space agencies and regular, overweight people whose piloting experience is limited to driving BMWs ponying up to become astronauts.
There is one notable exception: Buzz Aldrin, who followed Armstrong out the hatch of a module with aluminum-foil walls to become the second human being to stand atop this windless, soundless surface, and who has spent the majority of his time back on Earth in the public eye. At the astronaut dinner, Aldrin spoke very little, most memorably asking his young date to stand up, saying, “Isn’t she beautiful?” But he has otherwise been almost ubiquitous. He has co-written eight books, two of them memoirs detailing his alcoholism and depression, and appeared in several television commercials. He was on Dancing With the Stars in 2010. He lives in Los Angeles and socializes with other celebrities; news of his recent divorce from his third wife, Lois, appeared first on TMZ. In January, Aldrin was introduced as a spokesperson for Axe body spray’s new line of products, to be called Apollo, tied to the Axe Apollo Space Academy; the campaign will include a sweepstakes that will take 22 Axe users to space aboard the Lynx, in 2014, launching from an island off the Venezuelan coast.
I visited Aldrin a few weeks after the announcement in his tenth-floor apartment on a high point of Wilshire Boulevard, a place he calls Mission Control. The apartment has floor-to-ceiling windows with sweeping views of Los Angeles, but aside from some large gray couches and a white baby grand piano, it was mostly empty. (He was waiting for Lois, whom he’d sued, to return most of his memorabilia.) When I arrived, Aldrin was in the other room talking loudly on the phone with Mike Collins, the Apollo 11 astronaut who’d hovered above the moon in the command module while he and Armstrong made their descent. He greeted me and showed me a picture on his iPhone of his young girlfriend, then we had lunch and talked.
Aldrin, 83, maintains a punishing schedule. He had just returned from a trip to London and was soon to leave for New York and again for Europe. He is involved in all kinds of ventures, but none is as important to him as the conquest of Mars, which he believes must be colonized. His most recent book, Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration, proposes a series of constant cycling orbits around Earth, the moon, and Mars and its moon Phobos. It is a framework rooted in manned spaceflight’s increasing privatization, which he sees as its only viable future.
Indeed, though he has long been dismissed by his peers as an embarrassment, Aldrin’s vision of the future has turned out to be remarkably prescient. He’s been a vocal critic of NASA, which he believes suffers from “monstrous inefficiency” and is averse to contrary thinking. He’s publicly endorsed Obama’s decision to abandon explicit plans to send astronauts to the moon and has long found the obsession with returning there overblown. “I felt that my ideas were not being accepted by a lot of contemporaries who felt that their life was going to the moon, and they wanted to see more attention paid to that,” he told me. “But when it looked like other nations—China—were making serious statements about going to the moon, I didn’t see why we would want to do that in competition with them.”
Unlike many of the Apollo generation, Aldrin sees himself as just a person who happened to have been given a job. And so rather than argue for space’s exceptionalism and exclusivity, he has advocated for others to go—artists, writers, singers. In the eighties, he proposed a sweepstakes to build enthusiasm and help foment the private industry. Later this year, he has a video game coming out, Buzz Aldrin’s Space Program Manager, based on his Mars cycling-orbit ideas. He showed me drawings of the spacecraft he’d designed on his iPad.
He is a man of almost boundless energy who rarely turns down an endorsement opportunity or dinner invitation (we met during Oscars weekend, and he was actively scouring for an after-party to attend). But he does have standards. He declined an endorsement deal for a walking cane that rights itself if dropped—he has no interest in speaking to an audience his age. The Axe deal, by contrast, made so much sense. He believes in XCOR and its Lynx. He wants, desperately, to give more people the experience he has had. Plus, he said, Axe has the exact demographic he was looking for: young people. He imagines a reality show that could generate millions of dollars in revenue to pay the much more significant cost of getting people into orbital flight.
We sat at his kitchen table eating Cobb salads, Aldrin talking in dense paragraphs, his iPhone beeping and ringing relentlessly. One of his two assistants was mapping the route to the Ritz-Carlton in Marina del Rey, where he was taking a date to a black-tie event that evening. Sunset was coming, the sky reddening. Out the window, a power plant to the south was emitting streams of steam that broke into clouds; planes took off from LAX like tiny elongated bullets gliding in slow motion over the Pacific. A pale, gibbous moon hung over the city. Going there, he said, was “an event that took place and I was a participant in it and it carries a lot of things over that I can’t escape from, for better or worse, and I might as well make use of it.” But he has moved on. “Now, as I look at the future,” he said, “Mars is not just another destination.” Establishing a permanent settlement there will be “one of the biggest things humans have ever achieved,” many times more significant than his trip. The people who will make that happen, “they’re going to be pioneers, pilgrims.”
In the past three months: SpaceX’s Dragon capsule completed its second successful rendezvous with the International Space Station, ahead of schedule and under budget. ISS commander Chris Hadfield entranced the world beneath him with his music video of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” which he covers while floating against a bank of windows. Jeff Bezos resurrected from the ocean’s depths some of the jettisoned rocketry from the Apollo missions. Obama announced the acceleration of his space policy, with plans to lasso an asteroid, drag it into the moon’s orbit, and send astronauts to explore it within eight years. Dennis Tito, a 72-year-old former NASA engineer who, in 2001, became the first civilian to buy a ride from the Russians to the space station, announced the creation of the Inspiration Mars Foundation, which intends to partner with NASA and private companies to send two explorers on a 501-day mission to fly by Mars in 2018. (His efforts are more philanthropic than commercial: “I’m going to be a lot poorer,” Tito told me. “My grandchildren, and a lot of people’s grandchildren, will be a lot richer in spirit.”) And three weeks ago, Virgin Galactic made good on its promise, dropping its rocket engine into its SpaceShipTwo and taking off from the scrub desert of its test facility. At 47,000 feet, the vehicle successfully detached from the mother ship and shot forward. Watching the successful test launch, Branson told me, he was moved to tears. He expects his family’s flight to be imminent: “I think we’ll be up and away by the end of the year.”
Following all of this with glee and wonder from her tiny house in Tucson was 65-year-old Sally Krusing, a thin, fit woman with sandy gray hair and piercing green eyes, who retired from IBM in 2004 after 26 years as a manager in marketing. We met at ISPCS last October, where she was one of the few nontechnical people in attendance. We sat outside in the shade and chatted.
She is divorced, with one daughter, two grandchildren. She grew up in Tampa, and her first job after high school was working as a reservation agent for Eastern Airlines, which she did for four years before going to college. She wrote out reservations longhand, then put them on a conveyor belt to process. Her job at IBM sent her all over the world, which suited her well. She’d lived in Fairbanks, Alaska; Greece; Germany. After retiring, she’d devoted much of her life to traveling. She’s been to every continent. Her favorite trip was to Antarctica; she used a photo of herself from there sitting next to a seal as her Christmas card.
She did not realize until very late in her life how important space had been to her. Growing up in Florida, on clear days she could see the rockets climbing over the state. She’d always loved science fiction, she’d read everything by Asimov, she loved the Dune series. In Alaska, she got her pilot license to fly small planes. She’d watched the northern lights. There is controversy in the scientific community about whether they make any sound but she believes she’d heard them; they “rustle,” she said, they are “like curtains overhead.” She thought, I would love to go up there.
Before she retired, a friend asked what she would do if she could do anything, knowing she would not fail, and Krusing, without thinking, said, “I’d be an astronaut.” Which shocked her. Three years ago, she went on a hiking trip to Kilimanjaro. Sitting around a campfire in Tanzania with friends, she was asked what else was left for her to see. She said, “I’m going to space.” En route to Tanzania, she’d read in the in-flight magazine about Branson’s plans for Virgin Galactic.
She sat on it for a while. Life got in the way. Money was an issue. Then, last year, she read about Spaceport America and drove to see it. That sold her. She called Virgin’s 800 number with questions about safety and timing and her deposit. She was satisfied with the answers. “It’s risky, yeah—so is driving your car across America,” she told me. She went cycling in New Zealand for a month. When she came back she mailed her deposit check for $20,000. Her number is 380. She hopes to raise money for the full $200,000, which would move her up the list, otherwise she estimates she will not fly until 2017 at the earliest. “So if you know of a sugar daddy …” she joked. She plans to use her nest egg, which is $100,000. She has contemplated mortgaging her house, but it would not provide enough money, so she has readjusted her lifestyle.
I asked her why she wanted to do this.
“Cliché answer?” she said. “I mean, why not? It’s the last frontier.”
She’d not yet told her mother or siblings or most of her friends. “They’re going to say I’m crazy, I’m weirder than they thought. But that’s who I am, I’m weird, and there are a lot of weirder things I could be doing.”
I asked if she’d imagined the flight. She said she does so constantly.
What should she expect?
Suited up and helmeted, after three days of g-force and safety training, she and five others will walk out the back of the spaceport via the gateway terminal and into the heat and the light of the New Mexico desert. They will climb into SpaceShipTwo. She will buckle herself upright into her seat, behind the open pilot cabin, where a series of checks and countdowns will finish. The tandem craft will proceed to the Bill Richardson Spaceway and the jet-powered WhiteKnightTwo will begin speeding, faster and faster, up and over the Earth.
Over the course of an hour, the spacecraft will climb, steeply, so that she will be pushed back into herself, into her seat. She’ll pass through the clouds of troposphere and stratosphere, until 99 percent of the atmosphere is beneath her. At around 50,000 feet, WhiteKnightTwo will level off, and another countdown will start. At T-minus zero, SpaceShipTwo will disengage and drop. There will be a brief fall, and then a valve will open and send nitrous oxide pouring onto a solid rubber compound, exploding in ignition from SpaceShipTwo’s rear, fire shooting out. The noise will roar, and within 65 seconds the ship’s speed will increase to 2,600 miles per hour, bursting through the sound barrier, the gravitational force growing to three and a half times that on Earth, the vehicle turning at 90 degrees and soaring upward, the blue out the windows darkening, until the motors shut off, silence filling the cabin. At 68 miles above the planet, weightlessness—the state of everlasting free fall—will commence. Krusing will feel her helmet lift slightly from her head, some strands of her hair alighting, tickling her face, as the spaceship turns over and she unbuckles her seat belt and floats over to the windows, the planet moving below her, the clouds and continents and seas rushing away, and in the distance, its halo, its arcing, while further still, the star-pocked blackness, a blackness those who’ve seen liken not to nothingness but to velvet.
I asked her if she was scared.
“Not at all. I mean, if it’s my time to die, it’s my time to die. I’m not afraid.”
She continued: “For me, I get really excited when I think about it. The rest of my life is just my life. It’s not boring, because I enjoy what I do. But there’s no real excitement. This,” she said, “is something to look forward to.”
Five Companies Hoping to Get You Into Space Soon
Founder: Sir Richard Branson
Start date: 2013
Ticket price: $200,000
The two-hour flight begins with being taxied by the world’s largest composite aircraft up to 50,000 feet. Then, the SS2 rockets higher, reaching suborbital Earth at a maximum velocity of Mach 3.5 before gliding to the ground.
Founder: Jeff Greason
Start date: Likely 2014
Ticket price: $95,000
The Lynx fits only two passengers—the pilot and a tourist—and flies for slightly more than 30 minutes. It will reach apogee in the flight’s first seven minutes and then glides downward in a circular pattern, landing in the same spot it launched.
Founder: Elon Musk
Start date: 2015
Ticket price: Unknown
The Dragon has already made two cargo-loading trips to the International Space Station. SpaceX plans to launch a manned ship in two years, thus expanding the reach of commercial space travel from suborbital to orbital.
Founders: Jeff Bezos
Start date: 2016-18
Ticket price: Unknown
An extremely secretive company operating from a privately owned spaceport in West Texas, Blue Origin appears to be launching a suborbital vehicle. Last fall, it successfully completed a launchpad- escape test.
Founder: Robert Bigelow
Start date: Unknown
Reservation price: Unknown
Having recently landed an $18 million NASA contract to build a pod connecting to the ISS, the company is independently designing its own free-floating pods and studying moon-based commercial facilities.