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Launching myself into this decade’s space race

It’s pure chaos

Illustration by Micha Huigen

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Illustration by Micha Huigen

The same year that The Verge came into being, another decades-long program was coming to an end. In July 2011, NASA’s Space Shuttle Atlantis, with a crew of four on board, blasted off from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, bound for the International Space Station. It was the last time the Space Shuttle would ever take flight — and the last time that people would launch to orbit from the United States for nearly a decade.

I didn’t start covering space until after the Shuttle stopped flying, but the end of the program was still a pivotal moment for me. NASA’s workhorse spaceplane had been a major staple in my life ever since I was born. Both my parents had worked on the Space Shuttle program at Johnson Space Center for nearly the entirety of their professional careers, and for them, its termination was a huge loss. An end of an era. As I watched Atlantis’ wheels touch down on a Florida runway one final time on TV, I couldn’t help but feel that the US was throwing in the towel on human spaceflight.

Like any respectable engineer, he made a PowerPoint presentation

Yet there were rumblings of new beginnings. During the last few years of the Shuttle program, when I was in college, my dad started experimenting with his own elaborate plan for returning astronauts to the Moon, just as a side project. He wanted to work on something that gave him hope for an exciting future in space. Like any respectable engineer, he made a PowerPoint presentation. And he showed it to the family... a lot. The plan relied on a mix of different rockets all working together to get people and fuel to space. Some of the vehicles were already operating, some still in development. One rocket he envisioned using was a vehicle I had never heard of before called the Falcon 9 Heavy.

I can still remember looking over his shoulder at the computer in his office during summer break, as he pulled up the rocket maker’s website, this small company called SpaceX. He told me it was founded by the same guy who’d created PayPal, and that he thought this was somebody to watch. Mostly, he was impressed at the company’s low prices. NASA’s biggest weakness had always been exorbitant costs that always seemed to balloon, making it prohibitive for anyone but the government to afford launching to space. But SpaceX boasted incredibly low prices for getting cargo to orbit. He thought their cost structure would change everything.

After the 20th time of listening to his presentation, I promptly tried to forget about all of it when I went back to school. Back then, I had no idea that the PayPal guy would show up again — in a big way.

The last Space Shuttle flight took place in July of 2011.
The last Space Shuttle flight took place in July of 2011.
Photo: NASA

There’s plenty to debate about whether the Space Shuttle program should have ended the way it did. But its conclusion certainly marked the beginning of a new era for NASA and the space industry at large. The Space Shuttle years embodied a time when the government was the primary gatekeeper to space, especially human spaceflight. In the years after Atlantis’ final flight, the world has seen private space companies leap forward in major ways. Notably, the rise of SpaceX from a bit player to a space behemoth changed the game. Just a year after the last Shuttle flight, SpaceX launched a cargo Dragon capsule to the International Space Station, the first time a private spacecraft had ever docked with the ISS. It was just the beginning of many more firsts to come.

It turned out that my dad was onto something. SpaceX’s focus on lowering the cost to get to space certainly played in its favor when securing NASA contracts and customers, and the company captured plenty of followers due to its lofty goals of reusing rockets and sending humans to the Moon and Mars someday. Though the company still clamors for government funding and sometimes makes bold predictions it doesn’t actually see through, SpaceX continues to defy expectations with each new accomplishment.

Important human launches will take place in the middle of the night, billionaires will launch to space within weeks of each other

Myriad space companies have sprouted and started to mature since, all aimed at capturing something like SpaceX’s success. Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are dueling to send tourists to the edge of space and back, while Blue Origin also hopes to launch people beyond Earth orbit and to the Moon. Satellite companies like Planet, Spire, OneWeb, and more have capitalized on technology miniaturization, creating satellites that are smaller than ever. And dozens of companies including Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit, Astra, and Firefly, have created their own rockets to send those small satellites into orbit and beyond. Companies like Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines are working on their own robotic lunar landers, while others like Axiom and Sierra Space are building their own private space stations. Maxar and Astroscale continue to tinker with making satellites that can repair other satellites already in orbit.

It’s a type of diversity that has made covering space an extremely intense and dynamic profession, very different from just a decade ago. When I did finally become a space journalist and started attending launches, I spoke with other reporters who had covered Shuttle during its twilight years. And I was a little surprised to learn that they found it to be rather boring. Every few months, the Shuttle would launch, and then it’d come back down. It was all pretty routine stuff. Compared to today, it was a much more predictable time.

We have to be ready, writing a post for success and one for all the possible ways a spacecraft can explode

Now, the space beat is a completely erratic profession. Important human launches will take place in the middle of the night, billionaires will launch to space within weeks of each other, Elon Musk will conduct rocket tests with just a moment’s notice, or the International Space Station will unexpectedly lurch and spin out of control for a few minutes, sending mission controllers into a panic. It’s hard to know what to expect in just a week alone. In the meantime, NASA is still a constant dominating presence. The space agency continues to explore the cosmos with a plethora of robotic explorers, which fly off toward distant asteroids and planets, scooping up materials for scientists back home to analyze. Sometimes those robots work — sometimes they don’t. As journalists, we have to be ready for any manner of failure, often writing a post for success and one for all the possible ways a spacecraft can explode. And that doesn’t even touch on the periodic UFO mania that pops up like clockwork.

With the rise of SpaceX and other commercial companies, there’s certainly been an influx of enthusiasm from the public, eager to lap up any new innovative updates about our push into space. People will camp out in front of SpaceX’s test facility in Boca Chica, Texas for days and weeks, just so they can witness the construction of SpaceX’s next-generation rocket, Starship, in real time. Thousands of space lovers will tune into launch livestreams for every major takeoff, so they can witness the awe of a rocket igniting again and again.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket takes off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida in 2020.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket takes off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida in 2020.
Photo: SpaceX

Of course, there’s been the opposite kind of reaction, too. The prevalence of billionaires in the commercial space race has been nothing short of divisive. When Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson flew to space on their own rockets this summer, many saw the launches as the world’s most expensive vanity projects, while others pondered if there was something better they could have spent their money on. And not everything SpaceX does is met with joy. The company’s Starlink initiative, aimed at sending thousands of satellites into orbit to provide broadband internet coverage to the Earth, has been derided and chastised as polluting the night sky with artificial light, as well as creating a much more crowded space environment. Meanwhile, the problems we all continue to grapple with on Earth — sexual harassment, diversity and inclusion, and burnout to name a few — are still a problem in the space world, too.

When SpaceX launched its first astronauts, it felt like millions of people were watching along with me

But one thing that can’t be ignored is that private space companies are pushing boundaries in ways that many people thought impossible decades before, at least without significant help and oversight from NASA or the government. Nine years after Atlantis made its final flight, SpaceX launched two NASA astronauts to the space station, the first time a private company had ever sent humans into orbit. More than a year later, SpaceX took it even further by launching four civilians to orbit; none of them were astronauts or military personnel. They were a tech billionaire, a cancer survivor, an engineer, and a professor. It was a gateway mission, proving that people don’t necessarily need to be NASA astronauts to see the curvature of the Earth from more than 300 miles up.

As a reporter, it’s been wild to watch it all unfold and witness as space coverage blends into mainstream coverage more and more. When I first started reporting, I was used to being the lone person, staring at my computer screen, intently watching as each rocket took flight. Last year, when SpaceX launched its first astronauts, it felt like millions of people were watching along with me. When the launch got delayed at the last second, pushed to a few days later, my entire company collectively groaned in agony. It was fun to share that experience with them, one I’ve felt countless times before.

The year 2011 may have seemed like the end of an era for space, but a new one has blossomed in the years since. I can only imagine what the next 10 years will bring.