The space race in 2018

09 January 2018

Interview with

Peter Cowley, angel investor

Getting things into space - be it satellites or people - is a challenging feat, and SpaceX plan to launch their newest rocket, Falcoln Heavy, this year. Izzie Clarke found out if there is money to be made in space from angel investor Peter Cowley...

Peter - Yes, because there’s actually money to be made and it’s been done for many years. In the 50s it was definitely governments doing it and then the military got involved. GPS, that can only be done from space - we all use GPS in our satnavs. Telecoms, telephone calls, TV, a lots of that’s from satellites. But new things like imagery, crops, deforestation, mining, etc.

To give you an idea there are 8,000 manmade objects up there bigger than about 10 cms across of which about 1700 are actually in use. And of those, just using the USA figures, 60% are actually commercial, the other 40% are military and government.

Izzie - SpaceX have said that this year their latest rocket, Falcon Heavy, is going off into space so tell us about it. What is it and how does it work?

Peter - First of all, SpaceX is one of several companies that a guy called Elon Musk, who’s quite well known certainly in the tech industries, has built including Tesla Motors, which you might have heard of and Solar City. He employs about 70,000 people in total of which 7,000 work for SpaceX which is sort of heading towards being profitable because it launches satellites for people.

Now the Falcon Heavy is obviously his heaviest one, his biggest one. It’s got 27 engines and it’s got the thrust of the equivalent of 18 jumbo jets. All the three rockets - it has three rockets - are reusable, which actually makes it cheaper because they come back down to Earth, land and can be reused. It will take 64 tons into low Earth orbit, which is actually quite a lot smaller than Saturn 5. Some of the listeners might remember the Saturn 5 that launched the moon trips in the late 60s and 70s, which actually carried 140 tons.

The aim of this, apart from taking stuff up into orbit, is to get to the Moon with humans and then, potentially, to Mars. First launch was supposed to be 2013. It was supposed to happen this weekend but it hasn’t happened . He’s actually going to launch his own very first Tesla car there and it’s being sent on a trip to Mars this thing, so it won’t come back again. He’s expecting to charge about 90 million pounds per launch so, therefore, there is actually a commercial model.

Izzie - My goodness! Is there much competition out there for launching things into space?

Peter - Yeah. Originally, as I said, it was governments, then it was the European Space Agency. Nowadays I’ve found over 50 companies that will put something into space for you.  A whole new industry that’s called New Space which includes things like nanosats, which are tiny 10 cm by 10cm by 10cm cubes which schools send up. There’s energy harvesting, there’s even fuel services.

Izzie - What are those nanosats used for?

Peter - They’re used for experimentation so this is going back to research, but research of all kinds of things in weightless conditions or outside the atmosphere.

Izzie - But take it to the extreme, what about me? Is there a chance that I could spend a holiday in space?

Peter - There is and I’ll give you some figures. I don’t know whether it would be a holiday or not, but SpaceX have got two people who paid a deposit to go up to space later this year, whether that happens or not. The sort of pricing that seems to be on the internet is probably between a quarter and a half a billion dollars for each trip round the Moon.
If you take the average, apparently according the Mumsnet, you pay 10% of your annual wages on holidays. That means you’ve got to be earning between about a billion and 2 billion which, apparently, there are 20 or 30 people in the world that do that. If you go out of capital because remember it’s a holiday of a lifetime, then there are actually several thousand people that could afford 100 million plus. I doubt that includes anybody here in the studio. It certainly doesn’t include me.

Izzie - I’d better start saving then. But why are companies investing in space when, arguably, we could look at other opportunities for improving infrastructure here on Earth?

Peter - Yeah, that’s been a question for many many years. And NASA’s been pushed back a lot of times over the years about the expenditure. It’s just general human nature the fact that people want to explore. Not particularly conquer but want to understand new things about life.

There’s also a lot of other things. We’ve had people in the studio talking about terraforming. This is the concept of converting other planets for normal life so, if we really do break this planet, which is still a good possibility we will, maybe we have to move some of the population away from Earth. Maybe we’re too many people for this Earth to support. And there’s a whole stack of other things like asteroid and Moon mining for materials. There’s scientific research itself. Somethings can only be done from space as I mentioned earlier, the schools.

Then there’s a lot of things been generated from the space programme: integrated circuits, a long time before you were born. The space programme did that. Freeze dried food, that actually came out of that. Metal coated plastics, there’s a whole stack of things that come out of that.

But in the end, philosophically I couldn’t say definitely we should spend it on health as opposed to space or vice versa.

Izzie - Fair enough. And finally, would you want to spend a holiday in space if you could?

Peter - Well, a) I can’t afford it; b) I can’t justify it, and c) there’s quite a lot of interesting places to see on this Earth.

Georgia - How much of a carbon footprint is involved in all of these missions going up? Is it equivalent to planes going around; is it the same kind of ballpark?

Peter - Yeah, it will be. If you take the thrust of 27 jumbos then you’re going to be generating that much carbon from that, exactly. If you do that per person, if you take 17 jumbos which maybe 500 people, that’s 8½ thousand people travelling for a period of time. You’ve got two people going up there, clearly there’s no comparison there, clearly it’s a lot more. There has to be other reasons for doing that.

It will be a long time before we can use a non-carbon based fuel to get up there. There is the talk of electric aircraft and that may well happen if  that electricity had been generated by another source other than carbon - nuclear whatever or wind. Then that would not generate the carbon in the motion but you’ve still got the manufacture. Cradle to grave carbon production needs to include actual manufacture and disposal as well.

Georgia - Finally, you mentioned that there was a launch planned recently and it didn’t happen. How much of these companies is a bit of grandstanding, how much of it do you think we’ll actually see?

Peter - I’m confident it'll happen. I’m confident they’re far enough through with this. Remember I’m involved in startups, I have been for a very long time and people promise things and they fail but, in the end, most of them will get there if they’ve got enough money to do so. SpaceX has been around for quite a long time. Last year it was supposed to have launched 14 or 15 satellites into space in 2017, so therefore it can do it and it can achieve it. But this is a big, big rocket and there’s an awful lot of design work necessary. I’m confident it will happen. It’s already a few years late, whether it will be another few years, who knows.

 


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