What’s next for space exploration? My long-read Q&A with Tim Fernholz, Sara Seager, Stan Veuger, and Matt Weinzierl

By James Pethokoukis, Tim Fernholz, Sara Seager, Stan Veuger, & Matt Weinzierl

It seems as though American interest in space is surging in ways we haven’t seen since the 1960s. What does this renewal mean going forward? Is there a reliable space economy to be found in orbit? And what does the future hold for our exploration of the moon, Mars, Venus, and beyond? Recently, I explored these questions and more in a discussion with Tim Fernholz, Sara Seager, Stan Veuger, and Matt Weinzierl.

Tim Fernholz is a senior reporter at Quartz, and he is the author of the 2018 book, Rocket Billionaires: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the New Space Race. Sara Seager is a professor of planetary science and physics at MIT, where she is known for her research on extrasolar planets. Stan Veuger is a resident scholar in economic policy studies at AEI, as well as a visiting lecturer of economics at Harvard University. And Matt Weinzierl is the Joseph and Jacqueline Elbling Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, where he has recently launched a set of research projects focused on the commercialization of the space sector and its economic implications.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation, including brief portions that were cut from the original panel. You can download the episode here, and don’t forget to subscribe to my podcast on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher. Tell your friends, leave a review.

Pethokoukis:
Let me start with Sara. Is this renewal of interest in space that I mentioned
in the intro a permanent thing? Are we entering a true space age as the
optimists of the 1960s envisioned? We’ve been here before and lost interest — this
time, are we going to stay interested in space?

Seager:
Well, I have to say yes, because that’s my whole field of research. And technology
will help with this continued interest. Compared to the beginning of space exploration,
everything is smaller and cheaper now. Just look at the amount of capability in
our phones today — that same technology is fueling cheaper and more accessible
space for all of us.

Why did we lose interest?

Seager:
I don’t know if we lost interest, but now space is like this shiny new thing
where we say, “Do it, it’s really hard.” Also, space exploration was all
wrapped up initially with the Cold War, and once that ended we just had less of
a motivation to continue to pursue it.

We certainly lost interest in the manned
aspect of exploration, but other parts have continued, right? While we haven’t
been going to the moon or Mars over the past 50 years, we’ve still been
exploring space, which is what you devoted your life to.

Seager: The human factor just adds a whole lot of risk. It’s true that our Mars rover landing in the last couple of days was just absolutely fantastic — perfect, really. But when you add humans to the equation, it gets riskier. No one wants to be responsible if something were to go wrong with a person up there, because that’s usually fatal. It’s my personal opinion that the cost typically becomes too high once we put humans in the equation.

Tim, what is driving this renewal of
activity? Is it commerce, exploration, national pride, national security, or some
combination of all of the above?

Fernholz:
The correct and easy answer is all of the above, but what we’ve seen in the
last few decades has been an increased emphasis on the economic potential of
space. The tech boom at the turn of the century laid out a lot of trends that
have made such an increase possible. For example, the small, powerful computers
and batteries in our cell phones are at the heart of a lot of what’s happening
in space now.

We
also saw people like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos — people who make a lot of money
and believe in the future of space — invest in it with the idea of driving down
the cost of access to space. It’s that dynamic that has reawakened commercial
interest in space and new scientific potential.

SpaceX owner and Tesla CEO Elon Musk gestures after arriving on the red carpet for the Axel Springer award, in Berlin, Germany, December 1, 2020. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke/Pool TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

However,
you can’t ignore the geopolitics. In particular, China’s ambitious space agenda
has a lot of people in the strategic national security community saying, “We
need to make sure that the US has those same capabilities.” It also raises
questions like “If China thinks that economic success is possible in space,
what can US companies do there?” I think all of these things are interacting
and driving each other on.

Does China and their continued interest
in space mean that America’s interest in space (and all its many dimensions) will
really become a long-term factor in American policy, whether it’s done via government
or American business?

Weinzierl:
Yes. I absolutely think that the US-China rivalry, both economic and
geopolitical, will drive a lot of activity in space. I think we all also have
some natural wariness about the directions in which that might head.

We’ve always wanted space to be a non-militarized zone of cooperation, and, in many wonderful ways, it has been that for the last 50 years. Understandably, there’s some nervousness about where that might go. But I think you’re absolutely right, Jim. It’s a huge driver of spending and competition.

Sara, for other nations, is their focus on
exploring and conducting science? Or for some of these other countries, is what
they’re doing more similar to what the US was doing in the 1960s, where a lot
of it was driven by geopolitics and national pride? Do they really want to go
to space for the scientific benefits?

Seager:
I think it depends on the country. Surely for many countries, civilian space
science is the tip of the iceberg — a way for them to showcase their prowess —
and we don’t know what’s going on elsewhere. Because of the revolution in very
small satellites, namely CubeSats, standardized parts are now cheaper, and not everything
has to be custom-made anymore. This has enabled many countries that you
wouldn’t think of as spacefaring nations, like Ecuador or Vietnam, to go to
space and do science.

And though it’s not there yet, soon those countries will also be able to compete on a larger scale by taking advantage of private companies’ technologies. Whether it’s Rocket Lab planning to go to Venus or Virgin Orbit — who you saw with that spectacular launch of the airplane — next going to Mars or Venus, soon countries will literally be able to buy those launch services and do more science than they ever could.

Do we get a sense that Americans are interested in space? I’m interested in it, and I’m assuming everybody on this panel is, at one degree, fairly interested, but are most Americans?

How interested were they back in the
’60s? Were they really interested in going to the moon, or was their interest more
wrapped up in the Cold War rivalry?

Fernholz:
Historically speaking, I think we sometimes overstate the public response to
the Apollo program. Most of the time, there was general approval of it, but
this was also during the Vietnam War, the War on Poverty, and the Civil Rights Movement.
The American public was thinking about a lot of different things.

As
of today, yes, I think the American public is very interested in space. We saw that
with the Perseverance landing. We’ve seen that with SpaceX’s televised “firsts,”
whether it’s the Falcon Heavy, their reusable rockets, or the commercial crew
flights this year. People are excited about space. But I think an interesting
thing for advocates of doing more in space to talk about is that there’s also
reluctance or suspicion of private actors going up there. We’re going to see
the first space tourism mission to the International Space Station this year on
a SpaceX Crew Dragon. I think that NASA sees this as priming the pump for a
future in which private actors do more and NASA can use its resources to focus
on other things. But I think that the public sees super-wealthy people going to
the National Laboratory in space and is unsure if that’s the right balance of
interest.

So it’s worth talking about — this question of how we explain to the general public that private-sector activity in space, even if it at first seems like a holiday for the super-wealthy, will have big benefits for everybody through the economy.

Veuger:I do wonder how much of the interest
is driven by “firsts,” like the first time we landed on the moon, the first
time any object made it to Mars, or the first time you use GPS. Those things might
be more important to most voters than the ongoing developments and policy
debates. I do think that Tim is right. Space was never at the center of
political debate outside of those specific moments. There was not an ongoing
level of interest in space that equaled the interest we saw in the Vietnam War
or the general state of the economy.

I
think it’s easy to set your expectations very high if, like James Pethokoukis, you
are obsessed with building your own generation ship. But I don’t think that’s a
level of interest that you can expect from the median voter on an ongoing
basis.

Seager:
But despite all this space enthusiasm, we still see pushback — and it’s fair
pushback — that we’re spending billions of dollars going to Mars while we’re
struggling here on Earth. Maybe not us, but lots of people are struggling because
of the pandemic right now, whether they have been out of work or something
else. There are a lot of bad things happening. So it’s important that we try to
explain why we’re still exploring space even amidst everything going on.

This was also a big issue in the 1960s
at the exact moment that we were finally meeting the goals of the Apollo
program. There was a tremendous amount of concern that it was a huge waste of
money, a diversion of resources. This issue is not going away.

Weinzierl: I’ll jump in with a slightly contrary opinion. I think it’s absolutely true that public support dropped off right away after Apollo — you really saw that in the funding to NASA. But one of the twists I see is that — very much to Tim’s point about the super-wealthy driving the next era — there are now people who are going to space, not for some public interest or because the government is excited to send them there for geopolitical reasons, but because they want to go. And of course, that will first be people with a tremendous amount of disposable income. However, like with many frontier technologies, we do hope that space travel will eventually become a more general-purpose technology and experience. I’m optimistic that this goal will continue to drive the interest that we’re starting with.

Seager:
I have a question for the economists here: Is there a sustainable business for these
companies in space, or will they continue to rely on the government and the
taxpayer’s dollars, at least initially? They’re very clever: get the contract
to go to the space station, get the contract to do this or that. That’s how
they’re funding their way to eventually build the ship that goes to Mars. I’m just
wondering if there’s a sustainable system possible up there.

Well,
that’s an excellent segue into the space economy. Lately, I’ve been doing a lot
of reading on the predictions about space from the 1960s, and I’ve found that there
was certainly a huge economic component to it. They thought that there was
going to be a thriving space economy, both in near-Earth orbit and other
planets. It wasn’t just about exploration or the military.

But
to Sara’s question, what is that economic model? How big is it? And will
people, at some point in the near future, see benefits from this new age of
space exploration and space industry?

Weinzierl:
This is really the central question. The big gap between enthusiasm and reality
has been “Where’s the demand? Why are we going up there? Who’s paying for this
other than the government?” And to be perfectly candid, that question has not
been solidly answered. We have some things that people have always hoped will
become answers: manufacturing in space, and the extraction and use of space
resources. And tourism, of course, is the one that we’ve already mentioned.

When
I think about an economy, the one thing that I think is important to realize is
that the economy is just people interacting. So part of the reason why we haven’t
had a space economy before is because we don’t have people in space. While
everything we do in space is for the people, almost all of the people are on
Earth. So it’s really not surprising that we haven’t gotten the flourishing that
we had the drawings of in the ’60s and ’70s.

The robotic arm in Japan’s Kibo laboratory successfully deploys two combined satellites from Texas universities from the International Space Station, January 29, 2016. Via REUTERS/NASA/Tim Peake/Handout

Veuger: And to the extent that there is a space economy, it’s mostly satellite-based, which is providing services on Earth. So does that count as a space economy? I mean, I’d say it does.

Seager:
Well, we have the perfect example of that unfolding right in front of us in SpaceX’s
Starlink and Amazon’s OneWeb. So we’ll see — maybe that will be it, Matt.

Weinzierl:
Well, why is SpaceX getting into Starlink? I believe the story there is that
they couldn’t get enough money in the launch market to fund their dream of
settling Mars. There’s a huge pile of money to go after in satellite internet
and telecommunications, and so SpaceX is a play for funding their broader ambitions.

Seager:
And don’t forget, it’s developing the capability they’ll need on Mars. They’ll
have to put a lot of satellites up around Mars so they can communicate with
each other and back to Earth.

Weinzierl:
Yeah. My hope is that, if we routinely start sending people up there for a few
hours, days, or weeks, eventually we’ll start to get that economy and demand
organically.

Do any of the things that Matt mentioned
sound like the killer app for the space economy? If you’re talking about
creating a multi-trillion-dollar space economy, is space tourism that killer
app?

Fernholz:
I spend a lot of my day-to-day talking to entrepreneurs and VCs in Silicon
Valley who are trying to solve this very specific question. I think the answer
right now is that we don’t know. I think if you want to draw analogies to the
commercialization of another publicly created technology — like the internet
going from the Defense Department to creating the commercial ecosystem we have
today — we’re still very early on in the creation of platforms that have the
domain-specific knowledge to do business in space. Right now, if you want to
run a satellite company in space, then you have to have that, and it’s hard for
a random business to use that data without a lot of training.

A
big challenge in the economy is going to be making people aware of, and
interested in, leveraging space stuff. I think satellites and remote sensing
are going to be the biggest areas going forward. And then when you think about
how to make that next jump to a more aspirational science fiction space economy,
I think the answer is going to be in satellite servicing.

A big problem right now is space traffic management. And in the years ahead, there are going to be thousands more satellites launched, as well as rules, best practices, and international agreements crafted about how to deal with that. There are also going to be — and there already are — new businesses being formed to figure out how to do work on those. That’s the virtuous cycle that I think Matt is talking about, where you want to see a new ecosystem and economy develop.

As far as other sectors, whether it’s manufacturing
or even asteroid mining, are those things 21st-century aspirations or not?

Seager:
I love the topic of asteroid mining, and initially I was on the board of the since-discontinued
Planetary Resources. I think the problem there is that investors aren’t
comfortable with a decades-long investment. Imagine if you have to invest for
40 years — you might not even be around 40 years later.

But the reality in terms of space science is that we know how to get to an asteroid. We know how to land on asteroids — at least, the Japanese landed. We know how to bring material back. Right now, NASA has OSIRIS-REx, which scooped up a tiny amount of an asteroid, on its way back. So we absolutely can put all the components together.

Now,
we don’t know how to drill on the asteroid. We don’t know how to chemically
sort the material we need to bring back to Earth. But we actually do know how to
get at least 90 percent of the job done. It’s just so far away that people don’t
want to really engage.

Veuger: We have a bunch of pretty large companies now that, for years, did not make a profit, so I do think there is that patience. I don’t know, maybe Tim or Matt can talk about that, but I’m surprised patience would be the obstacle.

Fernholz:
There’s an old aphorism in Silicon Valley: Don’t mistake a technology for a
business plan. There’re a lot of things that we can do that aren’t actually
going to return a profit, and when we think about companies that grow for a
long time without profitability, they’re companies that are growing —

Veuger: There was a clear path to profitability.

Fernholz:
Sure. It’s very interesting to think about where we’re going to find that
killer app again. When we talk about in-space manufacturing, it would be really
great for the industry if Merck would come out and say, “Hey, we finally
figured out how to crystallize the COVID cure, and it can only be done in zero-gravity.”
But so far, we haven’t found that.

There’s
a company called Made in Space that’s very excited about its fiber optic cables
and its work on the ISS. And while we haven’t found that real added value yet,
maybe it’s a question of economies of scale. That’s why reusable rockets are
such an emphasis for these people, because that’s how you lower the access cost
to do those things. It’s still an open question.

Weinzierl:
Yeah, I’ll just build on what Tim said so well. It’s true that, even back in
the ’60s and ’70s, people were saying, “Well, what could we manufacture in
space that we could only manufacture in zero-gravity?” So we’ve been looking
for that killer manufactured product for decades. But to Sara’s point about
where do to get the patient capital, that’s a real question.

Fernholz:
NASA.

Weinzierl:
So, VCs typically don’t have that capital. NASA used to have it, and maybe they
still do even though politics gets in the way. But the most obvious answer, to
me, appears to be the billionaires — the Bezos’s and Musks. I think both are
willing to put 50 years of patience into this.

That
being said, there has been some recent and exciting innovation on the financing
side of space, whether it’s SPACs, roll-ups, or the Space ETF. So you can see
that the finance sector is also trying to figure out how to solve some of these
problems.

Sara, are you generally comfortable with
the privatization of space, space launches, and the perhaps changing mission
for NASA?

Seager:
Absolutely. Even more than comfortable, just thrilled. Private companies’
involvements are actually bringing down the cost to go to space. While they
have to do that for their own sustainable business, everyone benefits from that
lowering of costs.

A view of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as the organization prepares for NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover to land inside a crater on Feb. 18, 2021, after traveling in space for 204 days. Once the rover lands, it will embark on a two-year mission of searching for ancient microbial life. Via REUTERS/NASA

I
always smile when I remember an MIT-led NASA mission called TESS that I just
stepped down from a leadership position on. TESS is a planet-hunting telescope
that finds about 50 new planet candidates every month — that’s like 50 new
worlds a month out there. And TESS was launched on the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which
was much larger than what was actually needed for the mission — it was like
having a giant suitcase inside a school bus. And we had so much extra space, because
the Falcon 9 rocket was still cheaper than whatever else was available, even if
it was smaller. That’s just one example of how private companies are bringing
costs down.

This
idea of sending a small rocket to Venus or Mars will change the scope of how
space science operates. Right now, we spend billions of dollars on missions but
don’t go very often, nor do we go with something that everyone has a part of. However,
if we can send small, focused missions more frequently, it will change the
game.

What should NASA’s mission be over the
next generation, and in what way is that different from its mission over the
past 20 years?

Seager:
I’ll just speak from my own opinion rather than what NASA should or is doing. When
you think about the past — and other people here have probably read more and
know more about it than me —you hear that NASA was less risk-adverse. It
certainly wasn’t run by 20-year-olds, but the people in power were very young
people taking a lot of risks. We don’t really see that as much now — NASA is
much more conservative. Everything has to work and nobody wants to see anything
go wrong. So opening it up to letting the private companies take on part of
this will allow for more risky and innovative ideas to flourish. It’s very
complimentary, actually.

Veuger: Are you and the other panelists worried that, as more parties get involved, the peaceful nature of various projects will be in jeopardy? For example, if you have more companies from different countries competing, you might get into fights over who gets to tax them. Or maybe once you start bringing the output of your asteroid mining efforts, you’ll get fights over tariffs and whatnot.

Obviously,
there will be a national security dimension to much of this as well, so you
might get the temptation to become very protectionist and say, “Only US-shielded
asteroid mining ships are allowed to deliver the products of asteroid mining to
the US. You’re not allowed to use the proceeds of Chinese-mined products.” Are
you worried that creating this private space economy will lead to those kinds
of tensions and ultimately backfire? Matt, what do you think?

Weinzierl:
I’m optimistic in the following sense: I think that there’s a lot of shared
interest in capturing the surplus that can be had by successfully building the
space economy, so there’s a lot of incentive for people to get around the table
and figure it out. That’s not to say that’s been done yet. I think that we have
a lot of work to do in bolstering current international treaties, because most
of these questions weren’t really pressing in 1967 when we got the Outer Space
Treaty.

I
think you’re absolutely correct, in that property rights, taxation, and rule of
law all need to be figured out. But I do think that people will try pretty hard
to do it.

Tim, do you think that the private space
industry can withstand failure, whether it be the very devastating loss of life
or other kinds of failure? Are they in it for the long-term, meaning if there’s
a disaster, then that’s just the cost of doing business and they will plow
forward?

Fernholz:
Unfortunately, I fear that we will find out the answer to this sometime in the
years ahead. I think it’s a main reason why Elon Musk has kept SpaceX private
and why Jeff Bezos won’t take Blue Origin public for a long time.

We’re
going to be entering interesting territory when Virgin Galactic starts doing
regular suborbital tourist service. I think it’s going to be like any other
major transportation industry, whether it’s airlines, trains, or cruise ships —
there’re going to be really tragic disasters caused by human or design error.
So people are going to have to keep doing the calculus of, “Is this worth it?
Is the experience worth this risk? Is the profit worth this risk?” Right now, a
lot of this is essentially unregulated. It’s indemnified by law, and you’re at
your own risk. But there will come a point where space safety rules will be put
in place, and that’s going to be a whole public policy conversation.

I
think that right now — as Sara very accurately pointed out — NASA is using private
companies to outsource risk-taking because NASA can’t do that anymore for a lot
of political and cultural reasons. That same cycle will eventually happen with
the private space sector, but it’s going to take decades.

Should NASA be building rockets at all?

Fernholz: There’s a good argument that NASA hasn’t been building rockets for a while. The traditional model of NASA — making the requirements and outsourcing them to a private company — has not succeeded in the last several decades when it comes to launching vehicles. I think there are a lot of people at NASA who think, “This is something we should outsource so we can work on a hardware problem.” If you think about what SpaceX has done, they’ve done Mercury, Gemini, and they’re working on Apollo. NASA already did all that, so maybe they have other things to focus on.

Weinzierl:
I’d just add that it’s not about rockets per se, but it actually goes back to
an earlier question and Sara’s answer to it, which is, “What should NASA be
doing?” I think NASA can provide really great seed capital in some sense, or
first-customer access to a lot of space startups. That is a place where they
can plug some gaps in the space ecosystem.

Seager:
And back to science for a moment, NASA still plays a really critical role there,
because there are still some huge questions that are way out of the price range
of the private companies, or at least what those companies are willing to
invest.

Fernholz:
I think it’s worth talking about this in the context of the current debate over
the Artemis program. When we talk about a lot of the success of private space
companies, SpaceX in particular but also Northrop Grumman, we’re talking about
them doing a service for NASA and the International Space Station. That worked
out for them, because flying to the International Space Station is analogous to
launching satellites, which is an actual business. We have little previous
experience flying people into low-Earth orbit for space tourism.

So
now we’re trying to take this same model to the moon, where we’re going to pay
private companies to land people with a human lander system, fly supplies to
the moon, or do any number of things. And I think that, especially for people
who advocate for more private activity in space, it’s worth asking if these
companies are going to have non-NASA customers who want them to fly payloads or
people to the moon. Initially, I think that answer is probably no, at least for
the next five to 10 years.

That
is a hard question for people who look at what the commercial crew has been so
successful in doing and say, “Can we do this on the moon?” I’m not sure who the
other purchasers are. Now, maybe it’s the UAE or other nations who have new
space programs and want to do stuff. There are certainly ideas for this, but
for people who think that the private sector is going to do more in space, I
think it behooves them to ask those tough questions about what the next “beyond-LEO”
business model is going to be.

Veuger: Well, this is what Matt was saying earlier, right? You need a moon resort before you can diversify your revenue sources there.

Are we getting back to the moon anytime
soon? Some people think we are, and some politicians seem to be suggesting it’s
very soon.

Fernholz:
I think, especially now that the Trump administration is over, we can all stop
pretending that anyone’s going to land on the moon in 2024. Right now, we’re at
a really interesting inflection point where maybe it will happen in 2028, maybe
2026. It’s not yet clear how lawmakers feel about accelerating that timing or
the priorities. Also, we’ve had a big pandemic and recession that might change
spending priorities.

Caroline Kennedy and Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and Blue Origin, have a fireside chat during the JFK Space Summit, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., June 19, 2019. REUTERS/Katherine Taylor

But
I do think that the smaller precursor programs, particularly the commercial
lunar payload services — which are hiring private companies to send robots to
the moon in the years ahead — will go off. And if they succeed, they will help
get the ball rolling forward. But there are still a lot of open questions about
what the Biden administration’s approach to civil, commercial, and national
space policy will be.

Is there a reason to go back to the moon,
beyond just national pride? If you’re trying to sell this to policymakers — or
policymakers are trying to sell to voters — what is that case other than “Let’s
go do what we did 50 years ago again?” That doesn’t seem like a very powerful or
interesting case. So, what’s interesting and exciting about going back to the
moon?

Weinzierl:
Many Mars advocates see it as a stepping-stone in a number of ways. It’s a lot
shorter and, in some ways, easier to get to the moon. You can practice some of
the things that you might want to do on Mars on the moon. Of course, it’s a
different environment, so how much you learn is up for debate. But certainly
the idea of getting down and back up from the surface, mining resources, and living
on the surface for a while are all things that we can practice on the moon in a
much lower-risk sense than going all the way to Mars — and at a lower cost. So
even if your goal is not the moon but Mars, that’s one argument often made.

Seager:
Tim, do you buy that argument? Because you look very skeptical.

Fernholz:
There are a number of reasons to go to the moon. I think a top one, previously,
has been good jobs in Huntsville, Alabama. But I’m not sure that will continue
to be the reason going forward.

I
think an obvious one is water. The confirmation of water-ice on the moon is
still the 12-year-old fact that I think scientists — and Sara, maybe you can
speak to this — feel like we can learn a lot from. I also know there’s interest
in doing radio telescope observations from the far side of the moon, so there’s
certainly a lot of scientific work that could be done there. There are a lot of
people who think harvesting that water could be an enabler for businesses in
low-Earth orbit or for longer-term stays on the moon.

But
ultimately, I think it’s going to be geopolitics. If China is serious about
landing people on the moon and continues to head in that direction, it won’t be
tenable for US leadership to say, “Go ahead, we don’t care anymore.” And so I
think that will be a major driver going forward, alongside the ambitions of the
private space sector, which wants to go to the moon whether or not it has a
government customer. It would take any customer to go there.

Seager:
I’d like to build on what Tim and Matt have said, because I agree with all of
it to some degree. The moon’s a good practice place and scientists still have a
list of things they’d like to do there. But if you asked “What about going
right to Mars?” the scientists would be way more excited. You could also ask, “Is
the moon really a training ground when it doesn’t train for some of the
critical things?” We’ve heard people talk about perhaps sending astronauts to
Mars and back without landing because that would help sort through the problems
of this long duration in space. So while I agree with everything you say, there’s
an equally strong argument for just going to Mars.

Fernholz:
As merely a reporter, I am definitely staying out of any moon-Mars fights. But
I am curious — the one thing that makes sense pragmatically for the moon is
that it’s cheaper, and it might be easier to sell that way. Private companies might
be more likely to throw in to go to the moon rather than Mars. How much should
that calculus matter when we’re talking about setting the direction for space
policy?

Seager:
I think that having a good plan to go to the moon is fine. But if you’re planning
to go to the moon and it just keeps getting more and more expensive, then you’ve
taken a big distraction for nothing. But I do agree that the moon is closer and
easier. Plus, there’s still a lot of incentive because we haven’t been in so
long.

Sara, you mentioned using the moon to
explore space and maybe build a big telescope on the moon. Is that something
astronomers talk about as actually achievable?

Seager: Yes. The typical dream for the far side of the moon is that you could put a giant radio telescope there and it would block radio interference. On Earth, it’s very noisy for radio. There are some narrow frequencies that we’ve maintained for science, and there are a few places, like in the heart of Australia, that are radio-quiet. But on the whole, it’s messy. So that’s one of the dreams associated with going to the moon.

As
far as other telescopes are concerned, like visible wavelength, the moon isn’t
that great. It’s very dusty — all that regolith would just mess things up. But
for radio astronomy, it’s exciting.

Fernholz:
Radio astronomy on the moon is also an area in which we’re going to see science
really intersect with geopolitics. Under the current regime of lunar laws, the
main thing is that you can’t interfere with what someone is already doing
there. So the first country to go lay out its radio telescope on a high
mountain on the far side of the moon is going to be there and no one else can
land. Is that going to be effectively a land grab on the moon? How will the
countries that don’t own that radio telescope react?

That’s
why, even as we talk about this, it’s so important to think about — like with
the Artemis Accords launched under the last administration — what are the rules
of the road going to be if we start doing these scientific or commercial
projects?

Weinzierl:
And who is around the table signing those, right? The absence of cooperation
between China and the US on many of these space agreements is troubling in
exactly the direction that Tim is going.

Veuger: So if the main driver for some of this dramatic expansion is precisely this kind of geopolitical conflict between the US and China, won’t these kinds of potential conflicts drive more activity and stimulate the sector? If the main reason why policymakers care is that they want to outcompete China, just like they outcompeted the Soviet Union — not for any directly tangible military advantage necessarily, but just to do better than the opponent — isn’t that exactly the dynamic we should want?

Fernholz:
Well, I did an interview for the Perseverance landing, which also had UAE and
China’s first Mars missions, and an interesting concept came from it. Pete
Garretson, a fellow at an American foreign policy think tank, said that the US
still has this “flags and footprints” mentality. We feel like, so long as we do
something symbolically big and good, that’s fine. On the other hand, China
appears to be investing much more cumulatively and steadily going forward.

So
I think the one fear would be that, if the US is mainly investing in symbolic
missions and China’s missions are better poised for economic gains, then we might
have made a mistake in emphasizing the wrong things. But that’s maybe a nuanced
point about future space investment.

Moon samples from China’s lunar exploration program Chang’e-5 Mission are displayed during an exhibition at the National Museum in Beijing, China March 3, 2021. Via REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

Veuger: Do you think that’s really true? Because this is what some of the foreign policy types say about China and Earth as well, right? “Oh, they’re going to buy a bunch of roads in rural Pakistan and before you know it, they control the Earth.”

Fernholz:
Well, maybe it’s like the Soviet Union’s Buran rocket, where one country is
tricking the other into investing in a big white elephant. It’s very hard to
tell what China is doing internally.

But it sounds like it’s not just the
United States and China interested in space. Given the dropping costs, everybody
sees an opportunity out there and doesn’t want to be left behind. So to the
question of the difference between now and the 1960s, that’s certainly a major
difference. Perhaps this will create some sort of self-sustaining dynamic that
will be forever a part of what countries do.

Sara,
at the beginning you mentioned the manned aspect of all this. Someone like you,
a scientist, you’re interested in exploration. The fact that we focus a lot on
the manned aspect of exploration does create some risk. We also mentioned human
risk regarding the private sector earlier. I wonder if you could just elaborate
on that point a bit — would you prefer this all just be done by robots and
satellites?

Seager:
I love the idea of people going to Mars. I myself don’t want to go — I don’t
know about all of you — but I do love the idea of boots on Mars, so I’m always
a big supporter of that. But in terms of science, we still have a lot we can do
without people. Sure, we would really like people to go and do some
investigation there, whether it be looking at rocks or whatnot. But with all
the things we have right now, my main interest is the planet Venus.

We’re
on a big tangent in this — what used to be a ridiculously crazy— idea that
there could be microbial-type life floating around in the Venus clouds. And we
don’t need people to move that idea forward. Well, we can’t really have people
go to Venus anyways, because it’s hot at the surface and the clouds are just
nasty, but regardless there’s a lot we can do without people that is just
cheaper and easier.

What
is the latest thinking about Venus and the life in the atmosphere?

Seager:
Well, I was on the team that made a big announcement last fall about phosphine
on Venus. Phosphine is a gas that, on Earth, is only produced by humans or
bacteria in oxygen-free environments. There’s been a lot of controversy on this
because it’s looking for the needle in the haystack, so to speak, and Venus is
so bright that it’s quite hard to study with our very big telescopes. It’s
almost too bright, too spatially resolved, too big.

So
it’s very hard to find the signal, meaning there’s been a lot of pushback.
People have looked at our data and said they don’t see a signal. Other people
have looked at the data, seen a signal, but claim it’s not phosphine but rather
sulfur dioxide. So it’s still a bit controversial, but it has shone a light
back on Venus. There have been many people who, for a long time, have been very
enthusiastic about going back to Venus. Something like 20 missions went to
Venus up until about the early ’80s, either flyby or landers, but after that there’s
only been three, none of which have gone inside the atmosphere.

So
we haven’t truly gone down into the Venus atmosphere in about four decades,
meaning it is really time to go back. We have a small, handpicked team that is
privately funded to design a series of missions that could go to Venus and look
for signs of life, or even life itself, in the atmosphere. We are actually
teaming up with Rocket Lab to do this, who is already planning on going to
Venus. In 2023, they’re going to launch a privately funded mission to go to
Venus. We’re helping with the science payload on that mission.

There’s been a lot of news that we’ve
been finding planets. You mentioned the Venus news. Is all that excitement together
creating momentum so that we might see more funding for this kind of thing in
the future, even beyond the space economy and global politics?

Seager: There has always been this momentum in some way. And while we still see ourselves as a luxury science/field, we also have this phrase, “All ships rise with the rising tide.” We deal with the fact that we get the small slice of the pie. But think about the Hubble Space Telescope — it’s a household name. So in many ways, I hope that the science has always been exciting to people.

Weinzierl:
I think that’s been one of the bright spots, right? Sure, people might have
been disappointed with the shuttle and what it became relative to its
expectations, but nevertheless some of the science it enabled thrilled people
for decades. I think that’s always been a big part of what’s kept us interested
in space.

Tim, is there currently a big pro-space
lobby in either party in Washington? Who’s excited about it that wants to spend
a lot of money?

Fernholz: Everyone. Space is bipartisan, because it’s usually an opportunity to funnel billions of dollars to a private company like Boeing or Lockheed Martin who might have a factory in your district. But space is bipartisan for a lot of reasons. It’s obviously the legacy of Apollo: national greatness, symbolism, science. Generally, everybody loves that stuff, although that can sometimes backfire.

We
saw that in the last four years with the discussion of the Artemis program and
going to the moon. We had four years of NASA claiming bipartisan support and receiving
a decent amount of funding, but not quite enough to actually do the mission. So
we had four years of bipartisan support and not necessarily a lot of progress. The
same for the SLS. It will be interesting to see if there’s going to be
bipartisan consensus around a more dynamic or differently prioritized space
program, one beyond the economic development of the “my district” approach.

Vice President Mike Pence chairs the Seventh Meeting of the National Space Council at NASA Headquarters in Washington, U.S., May 19, 2020. REUTERS/Tom Brenner/Pool

Matt, what would you like to see
Washington do to enable a vibrant space economy?

Weinzierl:
The first is — and I’ve sort of hinted at this already — this idea of trying to
understand the broader industrial ecosystem here. There are a million road maps
out there to the development of a space economy, whether they’re from think
tanks or companies. If you take the intersection of all of those, there are
various separate things that we think need to get going together but are hard
to do simultaneously. That’s what we call co-innovation risk. The federal
government can help fill some of those gaps by providing a little bit of
funding as the first customer. That’s the biggest thing, because it brings
everything together in some way.

The
second thing gets back to the regulation we talked about — around risk-taking, property
rights, taxation, and things like that. We need to know the rules of the game.
We need to have rules that will facilitate risk-taking in some of the ways we’ve
already discussed.

As someone who’s been interested in the
idea of there being intelligent life out there for a long time, it seems like there’s
been a lot happening in that area over the past 18 months to two years. Whether
it’s ‘Oumuamua or those Navy pilots seeing something over the Pacific zipping
around their planes, activity seems to have peaked.

Sara, what do you make of those things —
‘Oumuamua and the Navy pilots seeing those “Tic Tac” UFOs? Is that something
you’re interested in, or would you rather just focus on what you’re doing?

Seager:
That’s a bit of a baited question, because everyone loves the idea of UFOs,
right? We all want to meet aliens. But I don’t think we have enough information
on what these objects are to say one way or the other really.

I
mean, to read about the Navy pilots and UFOs on the front page of The New York
Times — I don’t remember that ever happening before.

Seager:
I’m not sure why that’s on the front page of The New York Times. I do try to
avoid that, actually, because otherwise I get too many phone calls either for interviews
or just from people wanting to tell me about their own UFO experience. A lot of
people have seen a lot of weird phenomena, but that doesn’t mean it’s a UFO. It
just means, as the U stands for, it’s something unexplained.

And
back to the asteroid, I actually personally don’t think it’s an alien artifact.
But whatever it is, it’s something absolutely insane that we’ve never seen
before. And I think we’ll see more of those as new telescopes that survey the
night sky repeatedly come online. We’re also hoping to have spacecraft
satellites ready in space to maneuver and go take a quick look if we spot one.

Is
there an advantage to collecting solar power in space for terrestrial use
compared to collecting it on the ground? Could we create big reflectors, gather
it, and maybe beam it back to the ground in some fashion? Can that be done, and
would it be economical?

Fernholz:
This idea of collecting solar power in orbit and beaming it down to Earth is of
interest to Jeff Bezos. The technology is unproven, but the US Air Force
launched a demonstrator satellite this year to try and test it out. China is reportedly
investing a lot in this. It is a very cool utopian-sounding scheme, and I hope
it works. But I think the jury is still out on whether it’s actually efficient
and effective.

What’s the likelihood of a space
infrastructure project comparable to the transcontinental railroad, and what
might such a project look like?

Fernholz: I will say that, when Jeff Bezos started Blue Origin, for the first couple of years he wasn’t thinking about rockets. He was thinking about nonchemical means of going to space, like space elevators or the weird hook thing that Neal Stephenson wrote about in his book Seveneves. But he couldn’t get those to work even with his billions of dollars, so he decided that chemical rockets were the most efficient option.

Founder, Chairman, CEO and President of Amazon Jeff Bezos unveils his space company Blue Origin’s space exploration lunar lander rocket called Blue Moon during an unveiling event in Washington, U.S., May 9, 2019. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

In
terms of an infrastructure project on par with the transcontinental railroad, I
think Elon Musk would tell you reusable rockets are that. I don’t have the cost
comparisons in my head right now, but it’s certainly a metaphor he used in the
past. You could think about it creating a reliable and regular transportation
system to the moon if there is a cislunar economy — it’s the back and forth, making
it very cheap, and getting the economies of scale out of it. So I think it
would be that or the dreams of a big, rotating space habitat where thousands of
people work. But I think all of those things are many decades in our future.

Weinzierl:
I’ll just jump in because the space elevator is super fascinating. It’s a
sci-fi dream, decade after decade, but it does seem like the people who know
the most roll their eyes the fastest when you mention the space elevator to
them, so skepticism is warranted.

I
would also say that, for infrastructure, another important thing is refueling
stations in space. When we talk about water on the moon, one of the key ideas
with that is that we should have gas stations too. That idea really is almost
like the transcontinental railroad, or maybe our highway system.

Veuger: Sorry, Jim, not to be too negative, but to me the things that are being discussed as the equivalent of the transatlantic railroad sound more like the initial phases of stagecoaches with a few passengers here and there, maybe places where you can stop. Not like mass transportation mechanisms that lead to the settlement of everything that’s on the other end of the railroads.

Weinzierl:
Yeah, that’s the problem. We’re not going to San Francisco or wherever the
railroad was going. There is no other settlement we’re connecting. And so, you’re
absolutely right, that’s a big obstacle.

Well, let me hook off of that question. How
long before we believe that there will be 1,000 people in space? Is that
possible by the end of this century? By then, will we have more than 1,000
people? Will we have 10,000?

Fernholz:
I think that the United Launch Alliance — this is the Boeing-Lockheed Martin
joint venture — is on the record saying that’s feasible by the late 2030s or
early 2040s, which makes me think 2050.

Weinzierl:
I’m not sure I’d be quite that optimistic even, although I’d love to be. It’s
obviously impossible to say what will happen if you stick 1,000 people at a
time in space. But I would be surprised if we weren’t there by the end of the
century. That’s quite a ways away, and there are very deep-pocketed folks with
a lot of passion and a lot of technology who really do want to make that
happen.

Veuger:
As Jim knows, the golden rule of financial punditry is that you give a number or
a date, never both.

Let
me finish off with this: What’s the best case for space, especially when there
are a lot of problems right here on Earth? It’s an old question, but one that’s
going to keep being asked. I’ll start with Dr. Seager. What is the case for
being interested in space and devoting a lot of effort to exploring it?

Seager:
Well, it’s two separate things. One is, as a society, shouldn’t we do great art,
music, and exploration? It’s part of what it means to be human, so I think it
will always happen. And a more mundane answer I’ll give is that it’s a jobs
program after all. It’s taking money and redistributing it, which eventually
trickles out.

Weinzierl:
I’ll say something related. For the econ wonks who might be watching, there’s a
lot of concern about secular stagnation, which has a variety of interpretations
and potential causes and solutions. But if you think about some of the things
people point to — the lack of a frontier and capital-intensive investment, or
the need to push really hard with high-fixed costs — space has all of that
going for it.

So
if you think about what really drives progress forward, there’s a huge
opportunity out there for future human flourishing and experimenting with
different ways of doing things that we don’t really have any more on Earth
because we lack the frontier. That would be my case.

Fernholz: I would just say that never before in history have people’s daily economic fortunes been linked to space like they are today, and I think that’s only going to increase. Whether it’s GPS, increasing internet access, remote sensing — all of these things are making people’s lives better right now and will hopefully continue to do so. I think it’s also still a good technology development system for a lot of fundamental research and science that’s important, aside from the science that it’s actually designed to do.

But
I think Sara said it best: We live in a world where there are many people who
are very interested in space, some of whom are hugely wealthy and powerful. They’re
going to be doing stuff, so it behooves the rest of us to know what they’re
doing and make sure it’s in society’s best interests.

Veuger: I think I agree with Sara’s first motivation, that part of our purpose as a species is to explore the universe and discover its meanings. I think we should do that. Obviously, Matt’s point about the side advantages of the scientific progress and adding to aggregate demand might be helpful if that’s something you’re concerned about, but I think that the first and foremost purpose is the generation of knowledge about the world that surrounds us.

James Pethokoukis is the Dewitt Wallace Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he writes and edits the AEIdeas blog and hosts a weekly podcast, “Political Economy with James Pethokoukis.” Tim Fernholz is a senior reporter at Quartz, and he is the author of the 2018 book, Rocket Billionaires: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the New Space Race. Sara Seager is a professor of planetary science and physics at MIT, where she is known for her research on extrasolar planets. Stan Veuger is a resident scholar in economic policy studies at AEI, as well as a visiting lecturer of economics at Harvard University. And Matt Weinzierl is the Joseph and Jacqueline Elbling Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, where he has recently launched a set of research projects focused on the commercialization of the space sector and its economic implications.