A new book explores how Musk, Bezos, and China are rewriting the rules on space exploration
Former Interesting Engineering Senior Editor Brad Bergan has compiled a brief but fascinating history of the private space industry in his new book, titled ‘Space Race 2.0’.
The publisher, Quarto, describes it as the "only authoritative photographic history of the efforts of private companies — often alongside NASA — to accelerate humankind’s exploration and understanding of the final frontier."
Images of rockets ripping through the atmosphere, the history of the billionaire space race, China’s technological advances, and Elon Musk’s journey from not-so-humble beginnings to successful space baron and consummate advocate for crewed Mars missions. All of these and more are included in the roughly 170-page work.
All the while, the stories of technological advances and idealized space ventures are grounded by juxtaposing the environmental impact and social reality of those working on the ground to realize these space dreams.
A chapter titled "The Future: Conflicting Realities" details how work in colonized space "could be a grueling and nightmarish enterprise." It also highlights the 1967 Outer Space Treaty's assertion that materials in space are the "common heritage of mankind" and the friction of upholding this principle in the face of private space enterprises most interested in the bottom line.
We caught up with the author to see how life's going post-IE, discuss the challenges of compiling and writing 'Space Race 2.0', and what his views are on the latest developments in private space and otherwise.
The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.
IE: Tell us a bit about the challenge of fitting such a wide-ranging topic into a book. Was there anything important you felt you had to leave out?
Brad Bergan: "I think I would have liked to write, comparatively, about things I don't know off the top of my head when it comes down to getting into the weeds of the engineering. The differences in the efficiencies of thrust and material from the Space Shuttle, for example, to things like the Falcon 1, Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, and Blue Origins’ New Shepard.
"Then, I only mentioned a little bit about NASA's attempt at making reusable rockets. What happened to that? It's not completely clear in the book necessarily what happened, because there have been a lot of proposals for different kinds of vehicles over the years. It just happened to be that Elon Musk was the first of that level of prominence.
"Another thing I think I would have liked to write about more is Musk's mentor Robert Zubrin. I've had a bit of a geek crush on him and have wanted to learn more about him for a long time. He proposed both the Mars Direct and Indirect [missions], and I think that's kind of the inspiration for much of SpaceX’s advances — namely, stripping our creature comforts and humanity down for transport in the most scientifically relevant way possible."
IE: As someone who’s had to write about Elon Musk a lot — not just for the book, but also at IE and for other publications — do you buy into the hype surrounding him? Do you think, for example, that we’ll have a million people on Mars by 2050?
"I think that's very unlikely. From a journalistic perspective — and I have been a journalist for most of my professional life in New York City — I don't exactly want to call it hype. I would just call it an idealized version of the space race.
"As a global society, if we could somehow drop everything, including the Ukraine conflict and maybe the military-industrial complex, and focus all of that money into just making us a multi-planet species, maybe [a million people on Mars by 2050] would be possible. I think that’s very much what Musk wants, and a lot of other people also want that. Personally, I don’t think it’s going to happen."
IE: In Space Race 2.0, you mention China’s role in the space race. What did you learn about China’s space program while writing the book? Do you think it could stake a claim as the leading space power and go toe-to-toe with NASA in the future?
"I remember how, earlier this year, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said of China’s space advances that they’ve gotten really good at stealing, and I think China does pilfer a lot of technology, if not just outright mimic it by studying. But I think they’ve also shown an incredible ability to adapt to new technology. They have the Tiangong space station, for example, and that might not only rival the International Space Station (ISS), it could very easily outlive it.
"So, imagining a future where whatever the private-public partnership funded replacement for the ISS will take some time to reach orbit, there might very well be a time when China has the only operational space station in low Earth orbit. And they're carrying out frontier science up there and doing real work. They've been on the moon, they've been on Mars. They're going to put humans on the moon supposedly in the next 15 years. That might be a bit of a stretch, but it's hard to tell because there's only so much you can gander from their state-sponsored news and Twitter accounts and the random Harvard astronomer who happens to be able to interpret things better.
"The short answer is, I think there's more negative hype than positive hype on China. Personally, I think they’ve shown themselves to be capable of expanding their space capabilities faster than we might like to believe. But they also have issues, like the rockets raining down on islands, space junk, and then the sort of endless bickering that's going on where the U.S. and China are both blaming each other for not being a team player in space."
IE: Something I noted in Space Race 2.0 was that the book ends on a cautionary note. The penultimate image shows something that is only indirectly related to space — an Amazon workers' protest. Did you purposefully set out to warn against the potential outcome of a privatized space industry spearheaded by the likes of Jeff Bezos?
"I mainly wanted to write a timely primer on the second space race, so that was my focus for most of it. I set out the context historically, then I thought there should be some context from normal people like the everyday Joe or Jane in there. Because it’s something that probably wasn't reported as much during first Space Race.
"I don’t know if it would necessarily be Bezos at the head of [the private space industry]. Since he lost his lawsuit against NASA, it’s looking like his rivalry with Musk is more symbolic than not. That could change though, and there are other new players that might one day do better than SpaceX.
"But yes, everything comes with a cost and I labeled these billionaires — the heads of these aerospace firms — as space barons as a comparative note to the robber barons of the 19th century. They are at the head of, not necessarily an industrial revolution, but an industrial bottleneck where Amazon is a corporate juggernaut that does literally almost everything you could want in a liberal secure lifestyle. But [then there’s] the cost of space travel, courtesy of these billionaires who didn’t get to the top by championing humanitarianism or humanism, really.
"I mean, symbolically at least, Elon Musk might say really nice things on Twitter, but we know that working conditions for SpaceX, Tesla, and Amazon workers aren’t necessarily ideal. The hours can be long, the pay can be underwhelming, and the way breaks are arranged can seem oddly specific in a way that’s needlessly cruel.
"There’s an essay from this year in The Baffler by Corey Pein where he wrote about problems that could be faced by future space colonies. He said, “vote against the boss? No rations for you. Labor unrest? Try striking without oxygen”. If your boss controls the few inches between you and the deep black abyssal depths of space, it would make you second guess resisting any kind of working environment, no matter how bad it got."
IE: During your time at IE you were on the James Webb Space Telescope news beat. I have to ask, what do you make of the recently released images? Did they live up to your expectations?
"I think so. They’re absolutely incredible. The image showing what I think was a planetary nursery was beautiful. You could see the divide between dying stars and birthing stars with unprecedented detail. Then there’s the one that shows super ancient galaxies and you can see the redshift, the light bending around some kind of greater gravitational force — maybe it's a black hole, or maybe just another galaxy cluster that's bending the light.
"The number one thing that's baffled me is, if I understand correctly, they’re seeing galaxies of a much greater level of maturity far earlier in time than expected. It’s predicted the early universe shouldn’t have galaxies this mature and it’s kind of ex nihilo — did these just pop out quickly as huge mature galaxies? So I think James Webb is already creating new questions for us that will fundamentally change how we think about cosmology and the beginning of the universe. So, so far, it couldn't be better."
IE: Lastly, if you could highlight one must-read section from your book, the section you most enjoyed writing, perhaps, what would it be?
"Firstly, I’d say don’t skip the section on China, because they are a growing power. Their space program, in my opinion already rivals the U.S. in capability if not in accomplishments. And I don’t think it will be long before some of their accomplishments match ours.
"I think some of the most beautiful sections are included in chapter 6, ‘The Race Itself’. The protagonist is SpaceX and its knight or its hero, whatever you’d like to call it, is Starship. There’s some great imagery and art there.
"And if I could highlight one key thing, it would be the main difference between the second space race and the first space race. I try to get across to exquisite detail the fact that the private aerospace firms are not only building and contracting their vehicles for NASA to use, they’re also operating them. The biggest difference is that private companies are doing space instead of just building the rockets for [others to use]. And then a dichotomy that I'm using to relate to this goes like this: symbolically, the idea of the Space Race is a workshop for the human imagination. We have businesses, engineers, and the media taking turns carving the shape of our future in space. But operationally, or practically, the second space race is a pragmatic attempt to lift the world economy to the moon and back."