The Doorstep: The New Space Race with The Washington Post's Christian Davenport

April 9, 20201

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Hello, everyone. Welcome to this week's edition of The Doorstep podcast. I am your co-host, Nick Gvosdev, senior fellow here at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

TATIANA SERAFIN: And I am Tatiana Serafin, senior fellow as well at the Carnegie Council. I am over the moon today to speak with Christian Davenport from The Washington Post, a reporter covering the defense and space industries. He joined the Post in 2000 and has had an array of assignments, but today he is here to speak with us about space and his book, The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos. I love it, and I want to talk about it because—I have to do it—"Space is the final frontier." I had to.

Thank you so much for joining us, Christian. I want to say that what we do here at The Doorstep is bring home to Main Street, USA, the importance of foreign policy issues that they might not be looking at and news that they might not see because everybody is so focused on the pandemic and on the economy. Space I believe is one of those issues that does not get enough press. Certainly your piece from yesterday was amazing. I want to talk about that and highlight the issues of why this is important and why people should be talking and looking at this.

Yesterday in class I asked my students to tell me their top words when I said "space." Here they are, and we can react to them: Innovation, Elon Musk, movies, opportunity, exploration, Mars, money, expansion, and junk.

I am also excited to do this podcast today because Monday, April 12, is the 60th anniversary since the Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, became the first human in space, so I feel like we are celebrating an important anniversary. It is also 40 years since the first space shuttle flight, and so much is going on in the private sector, in governments, and in a new space race.

But I want to start off with the billionaires in this space. What are they doing? What are their goals? What are we looking at? The students know Elon Musk, but he is not the only person in the game.

CHRISTIAN DAVENPORT: Yes, right. It is fascinating to me when you go through the words. One of the words they didn't say was the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which is really interesting. If you think the younger generation, they talk about innovation, they talk about money, and they are aware of the junk in space and the debris, and they talk about the billionaires, the "space barons," and they talk about Elon, but they don't talk about the government. It was always the government, and what we are seeing with the billionaires is the erosion of the government's long-held monopoly on space. Now it is being commercialized and democratized and moving into the private sector.

That is what is new here, and that's what the billionaires are able to do. It is just because the barrier to entry was so high, the cost was so high, that only governments could build and develop rockets. Now they are seeing that through "innovation"—another of the students' words—the cost of rockets and manufacturing techniques has come down, but the access has also come down.

They say as a journalist "follow the money." That's where I was like, well, if the two richest men in the world are dedicating their lives to space and one of them, Jeff Bezos, says that is the most important work I'm doing—and, yes, he owns The Washington Post where I work and yet space is the most important work he is doing—then that is something I think we ought to be paying attention to.

TATIANA SERAFIN: There are different things that are happening in this race to space from the billionaire angle. Some of it is space tourism. We have a bunch of people there. And something which is really important which happened yesterday are these Internet satellites that are going up; I don't think people realize where their Internet access is coming from, especially in rural areas. Can you talk a little bit about that, because I think this is important as a doorstep issue?

CHRISTIAN DAVENPORT: Sure. It's not new, but SpaceX and Amazon want to do it as well, and a company called OneWeb want to essentially put up constellations of satellites. We are not talking dozens, we’re not talking hundreds, we're talking thousands of satellites that are relatively small and inexpensive so that if one fails, no big deal, bring it back down and put up another one.

They would beam essentially Internet signals to ground stations, like getting your satellite TV from space, to serve underserved areas that do not have fiber or cable. These are rural areas. There is an estimated 4 billion people on Earth who do not have access to the Internet. In the Biden administration we are seeing these plans for infrastructure, and there is a lot of talk that broadband and Internet access should be part of that, should be part of the infrastructure.

SpaceX, Amazon, and these companies want to do that now, and they are able to do it because satellite technology has come such a long way. Satellites used to cost hundreds of millions of dollars and were massive, about the size of a garbage truck. Now they can be as small as a loaf of bread and have amazing capability, just like you had a mainframe computer and now you have your iPhone which is in your pocket. We have seen that revolution in computing move from personal computing to satellites, so that's what they want to do. But there are a lot of issues when you put up thousands of satellites in space because there is that debris issue.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Is anybody addressing the debris issue? I will tell you what the students said. They read a horror story that debris could cover the entire planet, and then you couldn't get it out, and it would—never mind covering space—also crash into us. Is anybody addressing that issue?

CHRISTIAN DAVENPORT: People are talking about it. There is a lot more talk, but it is such a difficult problem to tackle because it is an international issue. It is something that would have to be solved at the United Nations. There are different countries with different priorities who all have to get along.

As of right now, there is no regulation that says you have to move a satellite. The U.S. government and the Defense Department tracks all of these objects in space, and they can tell two satellite operators that there is a good possibility that these two are going to collide. If you have seen the movie Gravity, when things collide in space they are traveling very, very fast. The International Space Station (ISS) is traveling at 17,500 miles an hour. So if two things crash, you could have enormous consequences creating more debris, and then that begets more debris and more debris.

So the U.S. government can say, "Well, there could be a"—they call it a "conjunction"—collision, but they don't have the authority to tell satellite operator A to move your satellite. In fact, there are no regulations that say on your satellite you have to have propulsion so that you can move your satellites. Some satellites cannot be moved, and of course some satellites, even if they did have propulsion, they are dead, and there is no way to maneuver them. So this is a huge issue. There is a lot of talk but as of right now not a lot of action.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Very interesting. We do want to go into the government space to talk about that, but I do want to talk still more about the commercial aspects because this is what we will be hearing about. As you said, the billionaires have taken over the story in this space. It used to be that it was only Richard Branson of Virgin talking about space and Virgin Galactic. I think initially in 2009 he said we were going to be going to there, he was going to have people going to space. Now I think the magic number is 2024. I am not sure. What are you seeing on the space tourism front?

CHRISTIAN DAVENPORT: It is interesting. That has come a long way, and Richard Branson has been working on it for years and years and years. Jeff Bezos wants to do it. They want to do suborbital space tourism, where you go essentially straight up, just scratch the edge of space, but you don't go into orbit around the Earth, and you come right back down. But you will be in space for about five minutes before you start descending back through the atmosphere, you will experience weightlessness, you will see the Earth from space, so even though it is the middle of the day it will be dark. You will have a great view of the stars. You will see the curvature of the Earth, the thin line of the atmosphere, and landmasses without borders.

I think a lot of people deride that and say it's a plaything for the rich, like it costs $250,000 or more for five minutes. But I actually think it could have a profound effect. Astronauts talk about the overview effect, and they talk about seeing the Earth, and that turns them into globalists and environmentalists, and it has a profound effect on them, and yet there have only been about 550 people who have ever been to space since Yuri Gagarin. If you double that number or triple that number, all of a sudden 10 years out and many, many more people have had that perspective and it gets to the point where you know someone who knows someone who has been to space and they talk about that, I actually think that could have a profound effect on society.

In addition to the suborbital space tourism we have now seen SpaceX have two missions on the books, one to launch in September and another to launch in January or early next year of space missions to orbit. One would stay in orbit around the Earth for about three days. The other one would actually go to the International Space Station, but these are missions comprised entirely of civilians, no government-trained astronauts.

In the one case, they are billionaires. They paid $55 million for the right to be able to go to the International Space Station. The other mission, called Inspiration4, is led by Jared Isaacman, also a billionaire, who is buying this trip on SpaceX, and he auctioned off some of the other seats. But again, those are everyday people who will have this experience, and the idea is that if the cost of getting to space comes down, more and more people will have it, not just on the suborbital space tourism but actually going into orbit.

TATIANA SERAFIN: So going to the International Space Station.

CHRISTIAN DAVENPORT: Or staying in a capsule and free-flying around the Earth, like John Glenn did.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Wow. How far away do you think that is, based on your reporting?

CHRISTIAN DAVENPORT: Here's the thing. SpaceX has now flown NASA astronauts, government astronauts, twice to the International Space Station. So they have proven out the technology. They have proven that they can fly people safely and bring them back safely. That is a big thing. So they are set. The crews are picked. They are training now. They are fitted for their spacesuits. So a flight in September and then one coming early next year. This is right around the corner.

For the suborbital space tourism, Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos' company, and Virgin Galactic are hoping that they can start flying customers or people this year. It has taken a lot longer for both companies. There have been a lot of delays. They want to be very careful about it.

We talk about rhapsodizing about all the benefits and the awe of space, but it is very risky, it is very, very dangerous. Virgin Galactic had a fatal accident in 2014 that killed one of the co-pilots, so they also want to move very carefully with this as well.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Absolutely.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I was fascinated by the comment that you made that as people go up, the overview effect has a transforming effect. I was thinking about this in context that really right now the only part of the U.S.-Russia relationship that isn't collapsing is the space cooperation. That seems to be the one area that is ring-fenced.

We talk a lot about great-power competition with China, and we are gearing up, but is space still an area where major powers and middle powers that are seeking to be able to get into space—and, of course, this is where the private companies can offer an advantage to a country to say, "You can't have your own space program, but you can buy time and space with us to get into orbit"—do you see this as an area where countries in fact despite their competitive nature on Earth are going to be able to cooperate, or are you concerned that terrestrial great-power rivalries will just extend themselves into space?

CHRISTIAN DAVENPORT: It's a fascinating question because you are right. Right now the United States and Russia cooperate on the International Space Station. Before SpaceX came along and was flying NASA crews starting last year, there was almost a 10-year gap between the space shuttles, which retired in 2011, to when SpaceX came along. People forget that there was a 10-year period where NASA did not have the ability to fly astronauts to space. We had to rely on Russia to do that, and they took our astronauts to space. When you are in space you are basically putting your lives in each other's hands, so they work very, very closely and very, very well together in space.

The United States, however, does not cooperate in space with China. They are effectively barred from doing that, and you are seeing China emerge as a great force in the space race. They landed a spacecraft on the far side of the moon, which had never been done before. They are talking about building their very own space station. The International Space Station has been up there for about 22 years or so. It springs leaks from time to time. It gets hit with this debris we're talking about. It's getting old, and it's not going to last forever, and at some point it is going to come down. It is interesting that NASA is looking to the private sector for the next generation of space stations, but China is building their own, and they are already talking about partnering with other governments, like Russia, in order to do that. It is not like the U.S.-Soviet space race during the Cold War that got us to the moon, not by any means, but you are seeing some rivalries there.

On the other hand, it might be good to have competition, but space is so difficult and so expensive that really if you are going to go to the moon and Mars, you need international collaboration for that to happen. It is just too difficult.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I wanted to build on that as well, both the question of expense but also the question of focus.

Maybe, Tatiana, from your students you could bring this back in as well: Is the ability to go into space, to develop the resources of space, to get us back to the moon and then to the other planets of the solar system, do you think this is going to be able to generate, first of all, new levels of economic activity? Obviously we have people like Andrew Yang saying, look, a lot of economic activity on Earth is going to get phased out, and we are going to need good jobs for people. Is space a growth area in that regard?

Then, is this something that is inspiring? You were talking about the Cold War and the space race, and certainly during the 1960s this was a real national motivation. It provided a sense of unity, particularly at a time when the United States was facing some pretty dramatic social problems at home. The space race helped to overcome some of that. Today in the 2020s people look and see division in the United States. They see the social compact unraveling. Is space not only poised to deliver dollars to the pocketbook, but can it also maybe bring back a sense of national purpose and be something that unifies people?

CHRISTIAN DAVENPORT: I will take the inspiration part first. I think Elon Musk has almost singlehandedly reinvigorated interest in space in a way that we have not seen before. A lot of people know exactly where they were when Apollo 11 landed in 1969 and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. But that generation is passing, and the new generation, like your students, are talking about Elon Musk, and they are seeing rockets that not only take off but can land again so that they can be reused. Typically rocket boosters were just ditched in the ocean. Now Elon is landing them and re-flying them, and they are seeing those images and seeing the advancement in technology.

That I think leads to the second part, the economics. Using those innovations, to reuse the boosters and re-fly them again, lowers the cost of access to space. Imagine if you took an airplane from New York to Los Angeles and then threw away the airplane. That would make commercial air travel prohibitively expensive, yet in space that is what we were doing.

When the cost comes down, then the opportunities for economic growth come through, and clearly Elon and Jeff and doing this not just to inspire and not just for the sake of humanity. They are businessmen. They see economic opportunity in this. Clearly we are seeing this with the Internet constellations, where SpaceX goes from being a rocket-making and exploration company to an Internet provider, NASA and Verizon, which is a weird thing to think about.

There is also a lot of talk — and this is a little bit more farfetched — of mining asteroids, and yet there is actually a law that Congress passed in 2015 that said if a company mines a celestial body, the company has the right to those resources, and there are a lot of people who think that going out and mining these asteroids for precious metals could lead to an economic boom. But we are not there yet. There have been many companies that have tried and gone bankrupt, but that is the ultimate goal to try to get there, but it is sort of a step-by-step process.

First you have to stop throwing your rockets away and make spaceflight a little bit more routine and bring the costs down. We are not at the point where there is a self-sustaining economy. A lot of people focus on the billionaires, but of course the government and its resources are a huge player here, and SpaceX and a lot of these companies don't exist without that infusion of taxpayer money.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think it is a really important point that governments, even if they are not recognized as the beneficiaries and donors, are there in the background, not only NASA but also the Pentagon because certainly the Pentagon has interests in a lot of these small sats I think you mentioned in your article for surveillance purposes and to get behind enemy lines. You mentioned a company that has better resolution of images from space that are helpful not only to governments but also not-for-profits. I think there are a lot of opportunities there that are funded by the government.

Also, we have to look at what the government gets out of this too. I read a recent op-ed about space and, Nick, what you were saying, and what you were alluding to, Christian. Imagine the eerie scenario of China or Russia removing the American flag that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planted on the moon in 1969 and returning it to Earth to use as propaganda to advance their own interests in the space race.

Laugh, but I do think to your point, China and Russia did sign an agreement. How is this going to change? Is there an opportunity to not work together? People instead will create this animosity in space. We have other players coming that I do want to mention as well—India and the United Arab Emirates—trying to make a play. Coming back to the question again, on a governmental level what kind of moves are you seeing to cooperate and also just to play their own game for our own defenses?

CHRISTIAN DAVENPORT: Right. There are a couple of things. Under the previous administration, NASA came out with what were called the Artemis Accords. Artemis is its program to go back to the moon, to return astronauts to the moon for the first time since Apollo. As a result of that, NASA said, we want to create these bilateral agreements with partner countries to join our efforts because again going to the moon requires all the resources from the commercial sector but also from as many international partners as they can get. To sign the Artemis Accords, those are "rules of the road" in space that partners would need to agree to.

For example, if you do science in space and you make a discovery, you need to share that with the world so that everybody benefits from it. You have to be transparent about what you are doing and where you are going to be so that if you are on the moon and you're mining, you need to let people know where you are and what you are doing and be very transparent about all of that. NASA is getting signatories to that for work to go forward.

Yet, when you talk about space, that is sort of a diplomatic effort. The military effort—and I think a lot of people derided the Space Force, and there was that Netflix series about it, but if you think about what we use space for from a military standpoint, it is remarkable. You mentioned reconnaissance, but it is also missile warning and missile defense. That little blue dot on your iPhone, the Global Positioning System signal, comes from an Air Force satellite, and it not only gets you to your kids' school in the morning or to work, but it also guides precision-guided munitions so that the bomb hits the bad guys in the convoy and not the school bus with kids.

All that comes from space, and these satellites are there, literally like sitting ducks, and other countries, notably China and Russia, have demonstrated that they can take those satellites out with a missile, they can mess with the software or the sensors, they can jam it, and they can render a reconnaissance satellite blind for a minute. So there is a lot going on up in space.

I had one military person say at a conference once that when Sputnik went up, people freaked out. There absolutely was pandemonium. He was like: "It was a beachball. It had a beep. That's all it was." If the general public was aware of what is going on in space today, it would be that level of concern.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: But not space lasers, though, not yet.

TATIANA SERAFIN: But I think it is important to talk about this issue, which is why we are doing this on The Doorstep, to allow people the opportunity to question: "Where are my tax dollars going? How much money is being spent on this?" We are talking so much about the infrastructure plan and the trillions in economic recovery but not the billions that are being dedicated to this effort. These are tax dollars at work, and I think it is important to look at what they are doing, and on a diplomatic front, is it leading to cooperation, or is it not leading to cooperation?

On that front, I want to ask: Do you see any other countries getting into the game? I mentioned India and the United Arab Emirates. Are there any other countries that we should look out for that are investing in space?

CHRISTIAN DAVENPORT: I would say those are the two big ones. The United Arab Emirates in particular is fascinating. They just sent a Hope probe to Mars that is in orbit around Mars. They are the only Arab country to ever do that. They were very transparent in the way they went about that. They actually went to the international community for space and science and said: "We want to do this. Where can we contribute with an orbiter? What is the science that has already been done? What is the science we need to advance?" They basically decided that their orbiter could help study the Martian atmosphere, winds on the surface but also in the upper atmosphere, so that is what they are doing, and they should begin sharing some of their science within a few months.

That was a very big deal to have a wealthy Arab country trying to diversify its economy off oil and seeing space as a way to do that, also to inspire its workforce. They pushed really hard for that. I think what is going on in the United Arab Emirates is fascinating. India as well. They sent their spacecraft to the moon and it almost got there, but I guess it crashed at the last minute.

The other thing I would say is that neither of them are partners on the International Space Station, but as NASA moves to a commercial space station that is where a lot of these commercial providers see the potential for a viable economic business because they will be able to not just take wealthy tourists but to have governments who did not have a partnership on the ISS be able to work with these private ones for research and send their astronauts there.

TATIANA SERAFIN: It is so interesting.

You mentioned Mars. We have so much going on regarding Mars. Can you talk about some of the innovations? You wrote something about a helicopter. I can't wait to see how that works.

CHRISTIAN DAVENPORT: Just recently NASA landed another rover on Mars, Perseverance, about the size of a car. It will do a lot of science. It is really exciting. And, yes, it had a helicopter called Ingenuity tethered to its belly. It is about four pounds or so. It is really small.

The good news for Ingenuity is that the gravity on Mars is about a third of what it is on Earth, but the atmosphere is like one-one-hundredth. It is just a fraction of what it is here, so it is hard for the propellers to get any purchase. So it has these two propellers that counter-rotate. They go very, very fast.

It is just a tech demo. It is a cool thing to see if they will be able to fly a helicopter on another planet. It will be the first time. If you think about it, if they are able to perfect that technology, what that will mean, because these rovers are plodding and slow and take a long time, but if you can send a helicopter with a camera and inspect craters and go check out this rock formation over here, and that looks like it could have been a delta, there could have been water there, and it could really give them good close eyes on the surface of Mars. That is a pretty exciting thing.

People don't realize that NASA landed this rover on Mars. It is so incredibly difficult, and for all the talk of the billionaires, Elon, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson, none of them are coming close to landing on Mars yet. That is still NASA. It was nice to see NASA, the old guys, pull off such a huge mission and show that when it comes to these super-ambitious missions, the government is still the only game in town.

TATIANA SERAFIN: That is such a great note to end our discussion on. Certainly we will be looking more at this as more and more happens. We would love to have you back, maybe after September, to see how that mission goes and review where we are in this new space race of money.

CHRISTIAN DAVENPORT: I would love to. Thanks for having me.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Thank you.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Read MoreRead Less