SpaceX CEO Elon Musk wants to do more than revolutionize the automobile, deliver individual battery power to homeowners, and extend the reach of solar power through his various companies. From Tesla Motors to SolarCity, Elon Musk has a foot in the future, but none more than in space exploration. However, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson isn’t confident Musk will be able to achieve his goal of colonizing Mars.
Musk expects SpaceX to deploy a manned rocket to Mars by 2030. In order to develop the technology to reach Mars, for the time being, SpaceX is developing rockets to deploy satellites into space, which has been a lucrative business so far. SpaceX’s “Falcon 9R” has successfully delivered payloads to the International Space Station (ISS).
Even though the latest version of the Falcon 9 exploded two minutes after launch on June 28, SpaceX will have a chance to try again. Yet even if the mission succeeds, Neil deGrasse Tyson, the noted astrophysicist and heir to Dr. Carl Sagan’s seminal television science and astronomy series Cosmos, is reluctant to endorse SpaceX’s ultimate ambition to lead a mission to Mars.
Indeed, the scientist injects a rather welcome dose of common sense in the entire notion of privately funded space travel, which after all is not as simple as logging into Expedia to find the best deal. Tyson admits that SpaceX and its competitors, such as Blue Origin which is owned by Amazon.com, Inc.’s Jeff Bezos, have achieved great progress in space travel, specifically private space travel. (Source: “Neil deGrasse Tyson says it’s a ‘delusion’ that SpaceX will ‘lead the space frontier’,” BGR, November 26, 2015.)
During a recent interview on The Verge, Tyson likened private space travel to dreams: “They’re big dreams, and I don’t have any problems with people dreaming. Mars One, let them dream. That’s not the delusion. The delusion is thinking that SpaceX is going to lead the space frontier.” (Source: “Neil deGrasse Tyson: The delusion is thinking that SpaceX is going to lead the space frontier,” The Verge, November 24, 2015.)
Here’s Why Private Space Travel Won’t Work
According to Neil deGrasse Tyson, “One, it is very expensive. Two, it is very dangerous to do it first. Three, there is essentially no return on that investment that you’ve put in for having done it first.” (Source: Ibid.)
Tyson brings up the proverbial elephant in the room. The cost of a manned mission to Mars is beyond exorbitant, not only because of the actual amount of dollars involved, but there are huge risks involved, too. As for the all important return on investment that investors, public or private, will expect, Tyson says there is none: “If you’re going to bring in investors or venture capitalists and say, ‘Hey, I have an idea, I want to put the first humans on Mars.’ They’ll ask, ‘How much will it cost?’ You say, ‘A lot.’ They’ll ask, ‘Is it dangerous?’ You’ll say, ‘Yes, people will probably die.’ They’ll ask, ‘What’s the return on investment?’ and you’ll say ‘Probably nothing, initially.’ It’s a five-minute meeting.” (Source: Ibid.)
As Tyson points out, corporations have business models and they are bound to the needs of shareholders.
The crashes of the Russian “Proton-M” rocket in May over Siberia and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 over Florida, both on their way to the ISS, are the latest confirmations of the risks facing the space program, affecting both Moscow and Washington. Given the stakes—NASA has shown success does cost a few failed missions—it is not in SpaceX’s interests to pursue an initial public offering (IPO) in the short-term. Indeed, it would be better to hold off until at least the first manned mission is completed.
Governments have forced governments to cut their spending on space exploration, turning the daunting challenge over to the private sector. The results have not been stellar so far and the risks are tremendous. Governments and private space explorers alike have discovered that the costs are huge and the rewards are rare—even if awe-inspiring.
But it’s not just a SpaceX problem. In October 2014, private company Orbital’s rocket called “Antares” exploded in Virginia shortly after takeoff, while Virgin Galactic’s space tourism “airplane,” which has the less daunting task of not having to supply the ISS or send satellites and astronauts into orbit, was also hit hard when its “SpaceShipTwo” crashed in the Mojave Desert, killing one of the pilots.
If both private and public sector space explorers are still having trouble with rocket launches, NASA’s dream-like goals of landing on an asteroid and perhaps returning to the moon by 2030 seem more distant, let alone the idea of landing a human being on Mars by 2030. To that effect, The Boeing Company (NYSE:BA) has even signed a $2.8-billion contract to develop the new Space Launch System (SLS), the rocket that should enable future human exploration in space.
The first SLS is scheduled for 2017, but this is highly optimistic. Not only has the failure rate of private and public sector launches been high, but there is also an overall shortage of enthusiasm. In the sixties, the race to the stars was a matter of tremendous national pride, as well as part of the effort to develop the technology to win the Cold War.
As Tyson said about the Apollo moon program, “you’re missing the fact that we only declared we’re going to the moon because we were at war with the Soviet Union, we were in a cold war, so this is a war of technologies. The fact that Sputnik was launched in a hollowed out intercontinental ballistic missile shell—no one thought about the space over the atmosphere.” (Source: Ibid.)
The Bottom Line on SpaceX
SpaceX’s ultimate goal as a company remains to build a private space transportation system, which will travel to Mars on a regular basis to support a human colony. Evidently, this project is still being studied, but the ambitions of SpaceX’s founder Elon Musk may well be beyond the risk appetite for most investors: at least, Neil deGrasse Tyson thinks so. It is doubtful that Elon Musk will pay attention, of course; he hasn’t gotten as far as he has by taking the advice of more cautious, however wise, voices. That said, SpaceX’s investors, current and future potential ones, if the company ever goes public, might want to consider Neil deGrasse Tyson’s advice.